NBA

Am I Becoming Jaded with the NBA?

There’s nothing worse than a bunch of jaded old farts, and that’s a fact.

For the first time in nearly three years, I didn’t renew my NBA League Pass.

It wasn’t an easy decision to do.

I got the automatic re-payment this September on my credit card. Almost 200 dollars. Usually, I would be okay, almost excited with the payment. The start of the NBA season has been traditionally one of the more upbeat parts of the year for me: late October, Fall still in bloom, baseball winding down, and the promise of NBA games every night on my laptop thanks to NBA League Pass. Hell, this year I even had a TV with Bluetooth capability. If there was any year to enjoy the 2016-2017 NBA season, this was it.

But I couldn’t be okay with the 200 bucks this time around. Something in me just couldn’t pull the trigger. I put in my cancellation notice, got my refund and just like that my NBA League Pass was gone.

How could this happen? How could someone like me, who loves professional basketball (both NBA and Euroleague) as much as me not subscribe to one of the greatest online services in the history of the internet? How could I pass on Grant Napear Sacramento Kings broadcasts and random Charlotte Hornets-Milwaukee Bucks February contests on a weekday night? What would it be like not falling asleep to West Coast games that wouldn’t start until 9-10 p.m. in Kansas City?

The short answer: perhaps I have become a little jaded with the NBA after this off-season.

Now let me get into the long answer.

This NBA off-season broke me. I was excited for the increase in salary cap, hoping that either middle-level teams would be able to make that key off-season acquisition that would put them over the top, or teams would be able to keep their star-cores intact and build on a run to challenge the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers, who had faced off against each-other in back-to-back finals.

And then Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors.


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This move brought up a bunch of mixed feelings. As stated on this blog before, I did not grow up a Kings fan. I grew up masochistically rooting for the Warriors.

Run TMC. Joe Smith. Chris Mills. Bob Sura. Adonal Foyle. Erick Dampier. Gilbert Arenas. J-Rich. Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy as “thunder and lightning”. Andris Biedrins. Don Nelson leading the helm. Monta Ellis. “We Believe.” The weird superhero mascot. The orange jerseys. Mikki Moore playing way more than he should. Eric Musselman getting one crazy good year and shitting the bed  the next. Dave Cowens looking frazzled every night. Keith Smart acting as head coach while Nelson nearly fell asleep in his plush chair. Former owner Chris Cohen screwing the team over every chance he got.

Hell. I loved the Warriors. But then the team changed. It started with the change in ownership and then the uniforms. Then Mark Jackson and his uber-conservative social comments. And then people started to jump on the bandwagon. And then they made the playoffs and started winning consistently. Steph Curry won back-to-back MVPs. Draymond Green became a ball-punching and small-ball 5 savant. They launched a ton of 3’s and pushed the pace under Steve Kerr. Bandwagon fans not only came on in droves, but became more insufferable each and every game.

I have always had a soft spot for the Warriors. My mother still considers herself a devout fan, following every game possible on TV or radio even though my parents still live in Sacramento and get mostly Kings broadcasts on CSN California (I tried giving her my League Pass password, but she is terrible with technology and gave up after she couldn’t figure out what app to download). I cheered for them hard throughout the past two seasons, even though I had turned to the Kings, changing my allegiance from the Blue and Gold to the Purple and Black (or white…or gray…whatever the hell their color scheme is nowadays). The last NBA Finals was crushing. I remember all the elation I felt after they made that 3-1 comeback against the OKC Thunder only to see those feelings sink to low depths I didn’t think possible after they lost Game 7 at home to LeBron and Kyrie and Kevin Love (unlike most, I am  not a big fan of Love; it mostly stems from following him in his high school days while I was a sophomore at Gonzaga where he was treated as the Pope of the State of Oregon during his high school years, only to result in him and his pompous father dumping on the Ducks in the recruiting process and going to UCLA…screw the Love’s). I couldn’t even talk about the Finals for weeks. The loss felt like a girlfriend I was about to ask to marry suddenly dumping me the day after I bought an engagement ring.

Yes, I didn’t consider myself a Warriors fans technically. But that Finals hurt.It hurt fucking bad because of my prior history cheering on the Warriors during their lowest of lows, only to see what should be one of their crowning moments in NBA history (setting the regular season win record and get a second-straight championship) get absolutely stomped on.

God I hate Cleveland. I hope the Cubs obliterate the Indians.

But my feeling should have faded eventually over the summer. There would be next season. Their core would come back stronger and motivated, and though I still would primarily cheer for the train wreck that was the Sacramento Kings, the Warriors would still garner my interest and my secondary League Pass watching (it was common for me to have a split screen when the Kings and Warriors played at the same time; god I loved that).

And then the Warriors pompous owner, who was busy talking to the media about how he and his organization “changed basketball” (he didn’t; people were taking three’s and running and gunning way before him; check Paul Westhead and Nelson), stepped in. He got rid of Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli and Leandro Barbosa and Marreese “God he’s so weird looking and he can’t rebound for a big man, but I love him as a heat check dude” Speights.

And the Warriors somehow signed Kevin Durant.

Yeah I should have been happy for the Warriors. But I wasn’t.

The bandwagon won out. It was like how the Tea Party won with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. The “old” Warriors were gone. The Warriors had now evolved into the Lakers and Heat in terms of they could get whoever they wanted now. The days of Arenas not wanting to sign in Golden State because they didn’t have money and he didn’t think they could win were a thing of the past. They no longer were the charming, plucky, underdogs represented by Curry and Klay Thompson and Green, guys who got passed over in the draft in favor of “sexier” prospects in the draft (sexy being Jonny Flynn).

The Warriors were able to acquire and pay for a former MVP, one of the Top 5 players in the league.

I can’t back a Warriors team like that. That’s not why I cheered for them, fell in love with them in the first place.

I can’t bare to watch a team with Durant in a Warriors uniform. It feels dirty, sacrilegious and traitorous to everything I invested in and experienced as a Warriors fan from 1997-2013.

Cheering the current version of the Warriors, who are now the new “Boston Three Party”, the “Decision” Heat and “Dwight-Nash-Kobe” Lakers (oh wait… they sucked…never mind) just feels like voting for Trump this November. And if I lost my second-favorite current NBA team, the team that made me get made fun of at Hunter’s Barbershop in Roseville throughout my high school years, then what’s the point of keeping my League Pass?

But losing one team isn’t that big a deal, right? I still got Boogie and the Kings. And they got the new arena. I’m sure those alone would be worth the annual 200 dollar fee.

Well…not exactly.


NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Sacramento Kings

I have pretty much cheered for the Kings since they changed ownership from the Maloofs to Vivek Ranadive. For starters, the Kings fans’ fight to keep the Kings from being pried by Chris Hansen and his Seattle group inspired me. It made me proud to be from Sacramento, which isn’t easy to do considering are just above Fresno and Bakersfield in terms of California city popularity. Sacramento doesn’t have much beyond the Kings and the Capital. So for Sacramento to fight the NBA and keep their team from being another Seattle or Vancouver was refreshing to see.

For a while, I loved what Ranadive aimed to do when he took over. He wanted to make the Kings a thinking-tank when it came to innovating the team on and off the court. He hired Pete D’Alessandro, a more business-type who seemed to be more concerned with manipulating the salary cap in creative ways than buying Raising Cane’s and playing pea-knuckle with free agents. Petey D did all kinds of cool, out-of-the-box thinking when it came to roster compilation and the draft (the Kings Grantland short documentary on them crowd-sourcing for the draft really solidified my allegiance to the Kings franchise). And him and Vivek seemed prime to be different. For a small-market team like the Kings, it was what they needed to do. The way I saw it, the Kings were on their way to becoming the Bill Beane “Moneyball” Oakland A’s of the NBA.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last long with Kings fans. The city of Sacramento, unable to be satisfied after shit fell apart once Rick Adelman left town, grew impatient and quickly frustrated with the Kings’ “process.”

First, he fired Mike Malone, which in retrospect was a poor choice. Yes, maybe Malone didn’t want to play the breakneck pace that Vivek wanted, but Malone was a good coach. He has proven that in Denver, making the Nuggets the “Denver Internationals” with a fun, balanced-style that features all kinds of entertaining foreign players such as Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic and Danilo Gallinari. It would have been interesting if Malone was still the coach in Sacramento. I guarantee you they probably would have been in the playoff hunt longer last season.

But Malone really was the tip of the iceberg. Cousins failed to get along with coaches post-Malone, through a combination of his and the coaches’ fault. Vivek, unable to let go of his micro-managing ways and harboring the desire to compete with Joe Lacob and Robert Pera of the Grizzlies for title of “most obnoxious” owner, continued to meddle to the Kings’ detriment. He hired and fired or (didn’t fire sooner, as was the case with George Karl) coaches without reason. He brought in guys in the organization who were unprepared to work in a NBA front office (sorry Vlade). He let his biases negatively affect the Kings when it came to player acquisition, putting them back development wise year after year. (Stauskas!) Vivek basically represented all the negative collateral damage of the “new  brand” of NBA owner who had arrived in the league post 2010: meddlesome, wanting to be in the spotlight more than necessary.

And in that process, with the combination of Vivek’s inability to balance ego and appeasing fans, the Kings started to fade from the neat little “Moneyball” franchise to the typical, shitty, in no-man’s land NBA team. Petey D left. After setting scoring records in the D-League the past two years thanks to head coach David Arsenault Jr’s experimental system from Grinnell College, the Big Horns let go of Arsenault this off-season and seem to be content to revert to traditional, not to mention joyless, minor-league basketball. Speaking of up-tempo, Karl and his push-the-pace preference (the Kings led the league in pace last year) were kicked out of town for a more typical, grind-it-out style under new coach Dave Joerger. And that’s no offense to Joerger. He’s an excellent coach and I think he has the chance to do good things in Sacramento. It’s just that…he’s a typical NBA coach who will play a typical NBA style…and that’s disappointing considering I thought the Kings were going to be more than that with Vivek took over in 2013.

I know that’s weird to be disappointed about. But in all honesty, I loved the Kings last year. Yes, the chemistry was awful. Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay needed to go. Cousins needed a new coach with less baggage. But holy fuck. The way they played. The way they scored (and gave up) points proved to be fun to watch night after night. For all the lackluster matador defense of Rondo and Cousins, you had Omri Casspi catching fire from beyond the arc and Quincy Acy going beast mode on the boards. The Kings weren’t good. They weren’t a playoff team. But they looked to be developing something special. Just a tweak from a coach who advocated that similar style, and perhaps they could be the Warriors-lite, with worse defense, but still as effective when it comes to getting buckets.

However, that seems to be gone. The Kings have resorted to aging and retread vets like Aaron Afflalo and Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson to build around Cousins. It sucks. This team reeks of a Brooklyn Nets team during the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett years. It feels boring. It feels unlikable. (seriously, how can anyone like Barnes?) And it still feels like it’s going to suck. At least the last couple of years, the Kings were fun as they sucked.

So why pay to watch that? Why pay to watch Barnes bitch at other players in his typical “Respect me! I’m Matt Barnes! I don’t care if my wife left me for Derek Fisher!” way? Why watch a Kings team that feels like the late 2000’s/early 2010’s ones that appeared to be “dead men walking” when it came to staying in Sacramento?

200 bucks isn’t worth that. And that’s hard because I love Boogie. I love what he did this summer with the Olympic team. I still want to see him as a King for life.

Yet the rest of the Kings roster, organization and future? I just can’t back that.


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I pretty much ordered League Pass to indulge in not only my passion for the NBA, but my two favorite teams: the Warriors and Kings. And do so from afar here in Kansas City, where there is no NBA team within driving distance. For a couple of years, I was able to happily enjoy those two franchises, albeit in different ways. However, this summer and off-season has just been miserable for me. I don’t feel optimistic about the future of either team, and in that pessimism, I have grown distant from not just the Warriors and Kings, but the NBA.

My twitter, which is pretty much a NBA news source, remains relatively unchecked and unused for days at a time, sometimes weeks.

I rarely listen to my NBA Ringer or Lowe Post podcasts. They were required listening for me on my daily commute to work not just during the season, but all year long.

I felt more unprepared and apathetic for my NBA Fantasy draft in comparison to years past. I am depending on Mirza Teletovic and Doug McDermott for threes.

In one summer, thanks to my two favorite teams’ off-seasons, I have not just grown more apathetic to the NBA, but perhaps cynical and jaded. I don’t believe I will be able to enjoy this year as much as I have the previous years post-2009, when I graduated from Gonzaga and switched from primarily following college basketball to the NBA.

NBA League Pass was the greatest thing to happen for me leisurely the past few years and now I will be without it. And I don’t feel bad or sad or frustrated or anything. I am just in “meh” mode, fuckified from a NBA off-season from hell for me personally and spiritually as a NBA fan.

Who knows though.

Maybe my jadedness will fade and I will rekindle my passion for drinking Miller High Life and watching multiple NBA games during the week by December.

League Pass goes down by fifty bucks around Christmas time.

Grading the International Talent in the NBA Draft Over the Past 15 Years

How will Dragan Bender and the rest of his international 2016 NBA Draft classmates fare in the NBA? Let’s take a look at previous ones to get some perspective.

With the 2016 NBA Draft coming up tomorrow, there has already been a lot of discussion about some of the European and International talent that can be taken in the draft. With Kristaps Porzingis having a sterling year with the New York Knicks last season, and the precedent set by European-born NBA superstars such as Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls, demand for foreign basketball talent is higher than ever. And for good reason, as basketball development in Europe has garnered high praises for focusing on “developing” skills in their youth academies rather than trying to win games (as is the issue with the current AAU landscape), and competition both at the youth and senior levels has significantly raised internationally, especially in Europe, over the past decade or so as well. Players coming from Europe are more prepared than ever in making the adjustment across the pond and in the NBA.

Most of the talk this draft is centering on Croatian Dragan Bender, who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this past season, and potentially could be a Top-5 pick. However, other international players of note who could be drafted include Jakob Poeltl (who played in college at Utah but is from Austria), Domantas Sabonis (who played at Gonzaga, but is from Lithuania and played in juniors with Unicaja Malaga), Timothe Luwawu (Mega Leks), Ivica Zubac (Mega Leks), Juan Hernangomez (Estudiantes) and Zhou Qi (Xinjiang in China), just to name a few. To put it quite frankly, it should be expected that at 3-5 international players could go in the first round, and perhaps 10 or more could be drafted overall in this upcoming NBA Draft.

But, I’ll take a look at who was drafted and what the outlook will be for them in the NBA on Friday, after the Draft. Today, I wanted to take a look at former international picks in the NBA Draft over the past 15 years, and whether or not they panned out. So, I’m going to break down each draft year-by-year, rating the NBA success of international players from this draft on an A-F scale. Here are a couple of key notes to keep in mind before you start reading the analysis:

  1. Usually, my ratings are based on how many “successful” international players came from this draft. Success varies, but what I am looking for is that they played a decent amount of time in the NBA and that they had some kind of regular playing role as well. A guy who plays one year on the bench does NOT have a successful year, but if you played 3-4 years and had a regular role, then I would consider that somewhat successful. It gets a little trickier with recent draft picks, as you can’t have more than 1 year if last year was your rookie year. In that case, I project based on that year if they will qualify under those parameters.
  2. I do not count “international guys” who played in college in the United States. The reason I disqualify them is that “international” guys who play in college can have a bit “murky” backgrounds: are they really International? Have they lived in America most of their life or just for college? There is a lot of background work that needs to be done, so in the case of this analysis, I kept it to just players who came from international club teams (though there are some exceptions, which I will explain when I get to them).
  3. I only count players who had successful careers in the NBA, not in Europe or the Euroleague. Just to put this out there: I do not think the NBA is the only way of determining whether or not you had a successful professional basketball career. I think that success in the Euroleague is worthwhile on its own, and some players, especially European-born ones, are simply better fits in the European game than the NBA. That being said, this analysis focuses on NBA success, not professional success in general. So, I do not list players who were drafted that had good European club success, but not NBA success. If that was the case, I would have to find American talent who did the same, and that is a post for another day.
  4. Grades go as follows in number of players successful from each class, though pluses/minuses are given out in discretion depending on how successful the talent was: F (0-1), D (2-3), C (3-4), B (4-6), A (5-7).

Okay, with those parameters being set, let’s take a look at each draft.

 

2001 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tony Parker, Mehmet Okur.

Notable ones drafted: Raul Lopez.

Grade: B

Reasoning: It technically falls in C category in number, but the quality of these four guys push it up to a B. Gasol and Parker have Hall of Fame cases, and Mehmet Okur was an All-Star with the Jazz and won a title with Detroit Pistons. Vladimir Radmanovic also had a long career that involved stints with the Seattle Supersonics, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Even Raul Lopez, who didn’t make the cut in the “successful” criteria, played a couple of years in Utah and ended up having a good career in Europe in the ACB. Solid class, but the low number prevents it from being better than a 85 percent class.

2002 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Yao Ming, Nene, Nenad Krstic, Luis Scola.

Notable players drafted: Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Carlos Navarro.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Same amount of players as 2001, but the busts color this class unfortunately. Tskitishvili is the poster child for any ignorant NBA fan when it comes to not drafting European players. (“Rabble…Rabble…they could be that Tskitish-vil-guy again! Europeans players can’t play in the NBA! AMURICA!! VOTE TRUMP! DURRR!) Nachbar and Welsch were first round picks who didn’t pan out, and Navarro left after only one season in Memphis. It’s sad that this class is known for the busts because Yao was on pace to be a hall of fame player until injuries derailed his career, Krstic had some good moments with the Thunder and Nets, and Scola and Nene are still playing key roles with the Raptors and Wizards, respectively. But like I said, you can’t mention international players in the draft without someone mentioning Nikoloz and that’s what keeps this class in the C-range.

2003 NBA Draft

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Successful players drafted: Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, Boris Diaw, Carlos Delfino, Leandro Barbosa, Zaza Pachulia.

Notable players drafted: Darko Milicic, Zarko Cabarkapa, Zoran Planinic, Maciej Lampe, Sofoklis Schortsanitis.

Grade: B+

Reasoning: Unlike the previous two drafts, there are no superstars here like Pau or Yao. However, six players ended up having pretty good careers as role players, with three (Diaw, Barbosa and Pachulia) having major roles with their NBA squads. There is something to that, and that should not go unnoticed. Much like 2002 though, this international class is forever tainted by Darko, who failed to live up to expectations in a draft class that also included Lebron, Carmelo, Bosh and Wade. So, you can’t rate a class an A with Darko in it, but I think this class gets less love than it deserves because of the amount of good role players it produced. Another notable pick was Big Sofos in the second round, though he never did arrive to the States.

2004 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andris Biedrins, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih, Anderson Varejao.

Notable players drafted: Pavel Podkolzin, Victor Khryapa, Sergei Monia, PJ Ramos, Ha Seung-Jin, Vassilis Spanoulis, Sergei Karaulov

Grade: C-

Reasoning: Not a great class, with Varejao probably the best of the bunch. A lot of weird draft picks who didn’t turn out. There were four Russian players picked in this draft and with the exception of a cup of coffee from Khryapa in Portland, they didn’t have much impact in the NBA at all. Also, Ramos from Puerto Rico and Seung-Jin from Korea, represented countries in the draft for the first time in the modern era in 2004, though they hardly had any impact in the NBA.  And lastly, Spanoulis is represented here, but like Big Sofos, he never made it to the States.

2005 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ian Mahinmi, Ersan Ilyasova, Marcin Gortat

Notable players drafted: Fran Vazquez, Yaroslev Korolev, Johan Petro, Roko Ukic, Martynas Andriuskevicius, Mickael Gelabale

Grade: C-

Reasoning: I like the players in this class a little better than 2004, but only 3 came out with really successful careers. Much to their credit, they are still continuing their careers, but neither of these guys have had real major impact, though Ilyasova and Gortat have flirted with being breakout players. Notable ones include Vazquez and Korolev who teased teams for years in terms of “when” they were coming over, only to stay in Europe on an annual basis. Petro and Gelabale are French nationals who played together briefly with the Sonics, and Petro had the honor of a fantastic Kevin Calabro “Sacre Bleu!” call whenever Petro dunked.

2006 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Andrea Bargnani, Thabo Sefolosha, Sergio Rodriguez

Notable players drafted: Mouhamed Sene, Oleksiy Pecherov, Joel Freeland, Kosta Perovic.

Grade: D+

Reasoning: Bragnani has had an okay NBA career, but he was the No. 1 pick and hasn’t lived up to that expectation in the slightest. If he went 3 or 4, he probably would rate a bit higher with me, not to mention general NBA fans. Sergio had some flashes of a good NBA career, but it was hardly complete, and it was a real challenge for me to put him in the “successful” NBA career category. Sefolosha is the only the carries much salt for this class, but he is a defensive-oriented player, not exactly one you want representing you as the “poster child” of this NBA class. Even the notable players drafted fail the enthuse, with Pecherov and Freeland both having mediocre NBA careers before heading back to Europe.

2007 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Marco Belinelli, Rudy Fernandez, Tiago Splitter, Marc Gasol

Notable players drafted: Yi Jianlian, Petteri Koponen, Kyrylo Fesenko, Stanko Barac, Georgios Printezis

Grade: B-

Reasoning: Yi was a bust sure, but it’s not as bad as the 2002 busts, which helps it get the B- rating. Gasol is an All-Star and Franchise player which helps carry this class, and Belinelli and Splitter have been excellent role players in the NBA. Fernandez plays in Spain currently, but I think he had a good NBA career, and probably could still be playing in the NBA if he truly wanted to (better pay and more glory in the ACB). Even Fesenko had some good moments with the Utah Jazz as a backup center to Carlos Boozer. Not an awesome class, but not bad either.

2008 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum, Alexis Ajinca, Nikola Pekovic, Omer Asik, Goran Dragic

Notable players drafted: Nathan Jawai, Ante Tomic, Semih Erden

Grade: A

Reasoning: Great combination of quantity and quality here. Ibaka, Dragic and Batum are high level players who will start on any NBA roster, and could be anywhere from the 2nd to 3rd best player depending on where they go. Gallinari is in the same boat, and has carried the Nuggets at times throughout his career, and Asik is one of the most valued post players in the game due to his physicality and skills around the basket. Ajinca has come back strong in the NBA after a brief stint in France midway through his career, and Pekovic, though probably near the end of his ropes in the NBA, put up some solid seasons with the Timberwolves. Very good depth, very good class, probably the best in the past 15.

2009 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Ricky Rubio, Omri Casspi, Jonas Jerebko.

Notable players drafted: Victor Claver, Rodrigue Beabouis, Christian Eyenga, Sergio Llull, Nando de Colo, Emir Preldzic, Nick Calathes

Grade: C

Reasoning: Rubio is a NBA starting point guard and continually getting better and Casspi and Jerebko have revitalized themselves in the NBA as streaky off-the-bench gunners. But not a lot of depth here keeps them dead set at a C rating. That being said, amazing how many current Euroleague studs came from this class. Former Euroleague MVPs Llull and de Colo stand out the most from this draft as major Euroleague success stories with Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow, respectively.

2010 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Kevin Seraphin

Notable players drafted: Tibor Pleiss, Ryan Richards, Pape Sy, Nemanja Bjelica

Grade: F

Reasoning: Kevin Seraphin is your class’ most successful draft pick. Yikes (nothing against Seraphin of course). To be frank though, not a lot of international players were drafted though, as John Calipari’s Kentucky squad (John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson) seemed to flood the draft along with a lot of one and done college talents this year. Tibor Pleiss and Nemanja Bjelica saw some time in Utah and Minnesota respectively, but I do not see them being in the NBA much longer.

2011 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Bismack Biyombo, Donatas Motiejunas, Nikola Mirotic, Bojan Bogdanovic

Notable players drafted: Jan Vesely, Davis Bertans, Tanguy Ngombo, Ater Majok, Adam Hanga

Grade: A

Reasoning: Some very, very good big international men came from this draft. Every successful player listed above plays a major role for their team, and is one of the better paid post players in the league (with Biyombo due for a bigger paycheck after his sterling performance in the playoffs). I counted Kanter in this category because he never played a game for Kentucky, and I think his time with Fenerbahce helped him more than his time with Calipari. Bogdanovic is a nice stretch big who is coming off his best season in New Jersey after averaging 11.2 ppg, and he could be primed for a big season as he enters the last year of his three-year deal with Brooklyn. Another aspect that puts this class in the A range is the fact that Bertans and Hanga, both of Baskonia, could be making their way to San Antonio this year, and thus enhance this class even more. Even Vesely, considered a NBA bust, has rebounded his professional career with Fenerbahce, as he led them to two straight Final Fours and a second place finish in the Euroleague last year, and also made the All Euroleague First Team as well.

2012 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Evan Fournier

Notable players drafted: Tomas Satoransky, Jeff Taylor, Ognjen Kuzmic, Furkan Aldemir, Tornike Shengelia, Tomislav Zubcic, Ilkan Karaman

Grade: F

Reasoning: I like Fournier, but that was it. He didn’t go until 20 and no other international player went in the first round. Some interesting talent taken in this draft, especially Satoranasky who is carving out a good career with Barcelona in Spain. But yeah, not a lot to really get excited about internationally from this class.

2013 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dennis Schroder, Rudy Gobert, Raul Neto

Notable players drafted: Lucas Nogueira, Sergey Karasev, Livio Jean-Charles, Nemanja Nedovic, Alex Abrines, Marko Todorovic, Bojan Dubljevic, Jannis Timma

Grade: A-

Reasoning: It is looking more and more that two best players from this draft will be the “Greek Freak” and “Stifle Tower”, who have long-term All-Star potential. Schroder probably is in the Top-10 currently of players from this draft, with potential to be a Top-5 players from this draft if he inherits the starting position from Jeff Teague (whom the Atlanta Hawks seem to be shopping around this off-season) next year. And Raul Neto started more than half the games this year for the Jazz and at the very least looks to be a serviceable back up point guard if his shooting doesn’t come around. What helps boost this class too is the potential of Nogueira who could be better next year with another year of experience and more opportunity (he has mostly played in the D-League). I also like Alex Abrines, a Euroleague Rising Star this season, who is coming off his best season for Barcelona this season. At 22 years old, I would not be shocked to see him explore a NBA opportunity within the next few years.

2014 NBA Draft

Successful players drafted: Dante Exum, Jusuf Nurkic, Clint Capela, Nikola Jokic

Notable players drafted: Dario Saric, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Damien Inglis, Walter Tavares, Alessandro Gentile, Nemanja Dangubic

Grade: B-

Reasoning: A whole lot of potential here, but still relatively unproven. Capela and Jokic had good seasons last year, but they have to display that they can do it on an annual basis. Nurkic and Exum had injuries derail their seasons last year after promising rookie campaigns, but they seem young and early enough in in their careers to recover. Saric will be making his much anticipated debut in Philadelphia this year for the Sixers, and Inglis and Taveras might see more time in the NBA next year after mostly languishing in the D-League over the past couple of seasons. Thus, this class could either be pretty good or pretty bad, it’s too early to tell at this point. Nonetheless, I like its potential, and give it a B- rating for that, as well as for solid Euroleague stars like Bogdanovic of Fenerbahce, Gentile of EA7 Milan and Dangubic of Crvena Zvezda.

2015 NBA Draft

Successful draft picks: Kristaps Porzingis, Mario Hezonja

Notable draft picks: Nikola Milutinov, Willy Hernangomez, Juan Pablo Vaulet, Arturas Gudaitis, Dimitrios Agravanis, Luka Mitrovic.

Grade: C+

Reasoning: Porzingis obviously captured the basketball world by storm, and was the second-best rookie of this latest draft class behind Karl Anthony Towns. Hezonja struggled to find minutes in his rookie year, but with Frank Vogel now in charge, he will have a better shot to see time on the court (Scott Skiles notoriously did not like playing rookies or young guys). I think Mitrovic and Hernangomez have potential to make it to the NBA, but they still are 2-3 years away, and need to get stronger if they want to make that adjustment.

 

Can the Warriors Survive the Second Round Without Curry?

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What are the chances the Warriors will be upset in the second round without Curry? The Clippers and Blazers will prove to be interesting challenges.

With Stephen Curry at least out for two weeks due to a sprained MCL, the big question on Warriors and NBA fans’ minds is whether or not the Warriors will still capitalize on their record-setting 73 win season and finish with a NBA title. Or will the Warriors have the biggest letdown in NBA history and not even make the Finals, let alone win the championship?

With their reigning (and possibly repeating) MVP possibly out for an extended period of time, there is major concern in terms of how the Warriors will fare in the coming rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Though it is not over, the Warriors should close out the Houston Rockets will relative ease, which brings the focus to the second round of the playoffs. Yes, I know everyone is looking ahead to the Western Conference playoffs where a Spurs-Warriors “Super-Matchup” looms (though don’t count out the Thunder who are playing great “F***You” ball right now (especially Kevin Durant, who was all kinds of salty and spitting straight fire to Mark Cuban after their Game 5 win) after dismantling the Mavericks after a Game 2 let down), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Every round counts, and there are still two possibly dangerous (though flawed) opponents waiting in the second round that could give the Warriors trouble, especially sans-Curry.

So, with that being said, let’s take a look at the possible matchups for the Warriors in the second round and how big a threat they pose to the Warriors from making into the Western Conference Finals.

 

The Los Angeles Clippers

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A week ago, this matchup would have had the Warriors and Warriors fans sweating. Without Curry, the Warriors would be depending on Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston matching up against CP3. Add that problem along with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, not to mention a playoff-experienced (though insufferable) coach in Doc Rivers, as well as some fiery history between the two franchises, and the Clippers seemed poised to pull off an upset for the ages in the second round.

However, that has all changed in the past couple of days. Blake Griffin was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs, and then Chris Paul broke his hand in Game 4 against the Blazers, ruling him out until the NBA Finals should the Clippers get that far. That means the Clippers will be relying on DeAndre Jordan, who is only a shade better than Andre Drummond when it comes to shooting free throws, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Green to carry them to victory against the still-loaded Warriors. Losing Griffin is a tough blow, but in all frankness, the Clippers got through most of the regular season without him. Losing Paul however is a death knell. To not have their floor general and main facilitator, and replacing him with Austin Rivers is a MAJOR downgrade. Livingston and Barbosa should not be able to just handle him, but they most likely will outplay him extensively on the offensive and defensive end of the ball.

Now, this could be a breakout series for Jordan. After all, he nearly left the Clippers because he wanted to be the “main guy” on the team and didn’t want to be in the shadow of anyone (hence a dig at Paul and Griffin until they came over with some Raising Cane’s and mended the turmoil in one hilariously chronicled night on Twitter). Ironically, Jordan will now get the chance to do what he could’ve in Dallas (be the main man), though I’m sure that’s not what he expected when he re-signed with the Clippers this off-season. Jordan will need to be a beast on both ends, and go up and above what he normally contributes to give the Clippers a chance in this series. Redick and Crawford are good, but Redick is more of a complimentary player, and Crawford is a streaky player who can rescue a team one night and sink them the next.

What keeps me from thinking though Jordan will reach “Superstar” status and help the Clippers upset the Warriors in this series though is his free throw shooting (or lack thereof). Yes, Drummond of the Pistons replaced him as the “Superstar player you can’t play in the 4th quarter because he is so dog crap with free throws.” However, Jordan still is pretty sub-par in a pretty essential category, as evidenced by his 43 percent FT percentage this season, and his 619 free throws this season were a career-high, which is evidence that teams have caught on to his glaring weakness, and fouled him in key moments to give themselves an advantage to stay in games or preserve leads. I don’t see Jordan turning around that miserable stat in the second round, which means that the Clippers might not have anybody on the floor at times in the 4th that they can really go to with any confidence in crunch time. That’s a huge detriment to their team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of the reasons why the Clippers fail to get out of the first round against the Blazers.

If Paul and Jordan were in this series, I would be worried about the Warriors without Curry. But not only will the Warriors be able to neutralize Rivers, Redick and Crawford without Curry, but the Clippers’ biggest strength (Jordan) will also be neutralized by the Warriors’ depth in the post with Andrew Bogut, Mareese Speights and Festus Ezeli. Bogut and Ezeli will be able to bang with Jordan down low, and Speights can stretch Jordan out of the paint with his outside mid-range shooting, which will clear the lanes for the Warriors’ perimeter players, especially Green and Thompson. And if worse comes to worse, James Michael Mcadoo can come in, foul the crap out of Jordan without regard (I mean he has six fouls for a reason, right?) and give breathers to the trio above as they watch Jordan apply for membership to the Bricklayers Union at the line.

And remember…Cole Aldrich is the Clippers’ backup center.

Yikes.

Projection if it’s the Clippers: Warriors in Four (Five at the most, if the Warriors shoot like a crap house in one game).

 

The Portland Trail Blazers

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This series is definitely the more intriguing second-round matchup for NBA fans, and probably a lot more worrisome for Warriors fans. Unlike the Clippers, who will be relying on Jordan in the post to succeed in the playoffs from here on out, the Blazers biggest producers come from the guard positions. While Rivers should be easy to contain for Livingston and Barbosa, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be much tougher tasks, as they are the main focus of the Trail Blazers offense. Furthermore, the Blazers also had one of the more dynamic wins against the Warriors, as they beat the Warriors 137-105 in spectacular fashion at the Moda Center on February 19th. To show how big Lillard and McCollum were in that series, Dame and CJ were responsible for 72 of the Blazers 137 points (with Lillard scoring 51) and 46 of the Blazers’ 97 shot attempts. And that is with Curry on the floor. It is frightening to think what the Blazers will do without Curry in the lineup this series.

However, there are a couple of things to consider this series that will work in the Warriors’ favor:

  1. The Blazers lack depth, especially in the post. The Blazers play a nine-deep lineup, and the lack of Meyers Leonard this series is going to hurt them. Ed Davis is a good physical hustle player and Mason Plumlee is a serviceable starting center, but he should be neutralized against the Warriors trio of Bogut, Speights and Ezeli. And though Noah Vonleh has stepped up in Leonard’s absence, I don’t trust the second-year player to do much damage, especially considering he has showed issues with keeping his composure at times on the floor. If there is one thing the Warriors do very well, especially in the post, is that they “dirty” it up much more than one thinks. The Warriors have a reputation as a “finesse” team because of Thompson and Curry, but when you go beyond the duo, the Warriors actually are one of the more physical teams in the league, especially in the post. I can see the Warriors frustrating the hell out of the Blazers’ post players, and I don’t think the Blazers will be able to combat that, especially considering this Blazers team is pretty green when it comes to deep playoff experience.
  2. I think the Warriors hold multiple advantages beyond the guard positions. As big a surprise as Al-Farouq Aminu has been, I don’t know how he will do against Draymond Green, who is such a versatile and physical player. Furthermore, I think Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless and Gerald Henderson will have their issues, not just against Green, but against Klay Thompson as well. And, as crazy as it sounds, while I think Dame will get his share of point (as well as big time moments) in this series, I think the Warriors will really focus on shutting down McCollum this series with a combo of Thompson and Green (with them alternating matchups with Aminu). While Dame has had his highs against the Warriors in their season series (Dame also scored 40 in their first game with the Warriors this season), McCollum hasn’t hit the 20 point mark in any of their four games this year. Add that with an much more intense playoff atmosphere, and I doubt he’ll crack 20 in the playoffs, which I think is needed if the Blazers realistically think they can win four games this series against the defending champs. I think Dame will have a big game, and he may win a game or even two in this series by himself. But the Blazers will need McCollum to really shine above and beyond for the Blazers to pull the upset, and I don’t see that happening. I think the Warriors perimeter players, knowing they will need to step up without Curry on the floor, will focus even more so on the defensive end in terms of stopping McCollum, thus making the Blazers more of a one-man show, which will not be enough.

This possible second-round matchup will definitely be a more entertaining series than the Clippers one (especially considering the Blazers’ willingness to push the pace). However, even without Curry, I think the Warriors’ depth will simply be too much for the young Blazers to handle. The youth is just too much of a detriment, I don’t necessarily see the Blazers matching the Warriors’ physicality, and though Terry Stotts has proven himself as a mainstay in the NBA, his record is pretty suspect when it comes to the playoffs (he has never gone beyond the second round). The Blazers will put up a hell of a fight, and I think Lillard will showcase why he is one of the more underrated superstars in this league, but I think the Warriors hold too many advantages in other positions for the Blazers to pose as a threat.

Prediction: Warriors in Five (maybe six if they get two CRAZY games from Lillard). 

Tom Thibodeau is in Minnesota..and It’s the Best Coaching Situation Possible

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On Wednesday, the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled the coaching coup of the off-season, inking Tom Thibodeau to be the new head coach of the T’Wolves next season with an alleged 5-year $40 million deal that will also include President of Basketball Operations duties.While the Timberwolves are also supposedly hiring Scott Layden to help with general manager duties, owner Glen Taylor has made this much clear: the Thibs era is beginning up north, and he has been given full reigns to the ship for the foreseeable future.

And to be honest, Thibs and the NBA in general couldn’t have asked for a better situation possible.

The season started about as rough as it possible could be for the TImberwolves, starting with the passing of GM and head coach Flip Saunders, who lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 60. Assistant and former Toronto Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell took over in the interim this year, and though the young T’Wolves showed glimpses of promise (they finished 29-53 this year, with a Pythagorean record of 31-51), it was pretty clear that Mitchell was merely a temporary stopgap this year until the T’Wolves found a more long-term solution once the 2015-2016 season concluded.

In steps Thibs, who’s been out of coaching for a year after being let go by the Bulls after the 2014-2015 season, and certainly had his pick of the litter when it came to possible coaching destinations, with the Knicks, Suns, Wizards, and Kings being the immediate options, and rumors of openings with the Rockets, Grizzlies and Lakers also being possible after the playoff season. But early in the coaching search, Thibs and Taylor struck a deal, and it couldn’t have been a better match. Thibs is the coach that this young Timberwolves roster needs, and Taylor needs the kind of leader that can capture the magic Saunders had when he was the head man of the Timberwolves over a decade ago.

So why does this marriage seem so good on paper? Here are a few reasons why this agreement will work out not just for the Timberwolves and Thibs, but also for the NBA, which really will benefit from Thibs back in the league.

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From L-R: Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Karl Anthony Towns are young talents who should thrive under Thibs next season.

Reason #1: Thibs will address this team’s most glaring issue: Defense

If you look at the T’Wolves on paper, they actually were a pretty good offensive team. They ranked 12th in the league in offensive efficiency, and have a strong core of offensive talent returning and primed to get better. Karl Anthony Towns was hands down the best rookie of this class, and looks to be to the Timberwolves what Anthony Davis is to the New Orleans Pelicans: a young, athletic big man with superstar potential. Fellow No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins also improved across the board, becoming a more efficient offensive player (his PER rose from 13.9 to 16.5) as well as a more impact player, as evidenced by his 20.7 ppg and 4.1 win shares total, 4th best on the team. Zach Lavine also noticed improved growth, especially after being moved to the shooting guard position, and Ricky Rubio arguably had one of his best seasons in the league yet, as his 17.6 PER was a career high. Add that with valuable young bench guys like Shabazz Muhammad (who has proven to doubters that he has a place in this league) and Gorgui Dieng (who is probably one of the better sixth-seventh man post players in the league), and one can understand why the Timberwolves improved from a year ago, and were forces on the offensive end.

However, defensively, the Timberwolves had their share of issues. They ranked 28th in the league in defensive efficiency, and despite strong athleticism and depth, they lacked cohesion and consistency when it came to defending the basket. Thibs, a defensive coach first and foremost, is going to change that culture. He is going to work tirelessly this off-season and during this first season to really make his system work, and he has the kind of horses that will make it successful in Minnesota like it was in his tenure in Chicago. Think about it: though Rubio is not known for his defense, neither was Derrick Rose when he came out of Memphis and yet he had Rose and other point guards by committee (Kirk Heinrichs and Nate Robinson being prime examples) mesh well with his system. Furthermore, the T’wolves’ active bigs sort of mirror what he had in Chicago with KAT and Dieng most likely being the anchors (in a Joakim Noah/Taj Gibson way) and Nemajna Bjleica (not a defensive player, but could mesh in the system like Nikola Mirotic or Pau Gasol) and an aging Kevin Garnett (who knows his system from his Boston days) complementing Thibs’ aggressive ball-screen hedging-heavy defensive scheme.

Mitchell certainly did his share on the offensive end, but his lack of commitment to a defensive style, or ability to get his T’Wolves to assert themselves defensively on a night in and night out basis, prevented this team from really reaching their peak. Thibs is going to change that, and considerably so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the T’Wolves crack the Top-20 in defensive efficiency next season (especially if Thibs and Layden can bring in some more complimentary pieces through free agency and the draft) and go beyond that in year two. And if that’s the case…well…it will not be a question of “if” they will make the playoffs, but what “seed” they will be.

Reason #2: The Timberwolves will add to the Western Playoff drama in a good, refreshing way.

I have to say this: The Timberwolves will make the playoffs within the next few years, with my guess being in year two. They have the right core of talent now, and Thibs will maximize their talent and bring a much needed jolt of rigid discipline that they really have been craving the past few years. Youth and talent is huge in this league, especially with the right core and coach (of course, it can backfire, as evidenced by the dumpster fire in Philadelphia the past three years). Look at the Portland Trail Blazers. They lost four starters from a year ago and made the playoffs again despite most people thinking they were bound for the lottery in the pre-season. Why? Because they had that young superstar in Damian Lillard and that strong young core that fit into what Terry Stotts wanted on the court. If you’re looking for a Trailblazers-like story next season, look no further than Minnesota.

And to be honest, while that is obviously good for the Timberwolves and their long-suffering fan base, it is more important to the Western Conference, which saw a bit of decline in quality after years of dominating the league in general. This year, we are seeing more parity in the Eastern Conference, as the Pacers upset the second-seeded Raptors in game 1 of the playoffs, and the Pistons gave the Cavs everything they could handle despite being the 8 seed. In the Western Conference though, the parity is painfully lacking. The Rockets look like a for sure early exit, even with Stephen Curry possibly out for the remainder of the series. Furthermore, they  could be making massive player (Dwight Howard most likely will be gone), coaching (don’t expect Bickerstaff back) and perhaps organization (Darryl Morey could also be gone as well) changes in the near future once the season ends, meaning they could be back in rebuilding mode as early as next year. The Grizzlies look more like the Iowa Energy featuring Zach Randolph, and don’t appear to have a bright future with Marc Gasol’s health and Mike Conley’s status on the team (he’s going to be a free agent) in jeopardy. And the Mavs and Thunder? Well, the Mavs really are playing with house money, overachieving even though they probably on paper are a lottery team (seriously, this team depends on Javale McGee to get minutes) and the Thunder continue to show that despite their talent, they have a tendency to underwhelm and under-produce on the big stage, which most likely will have an effect on whether Kevin Durant stays or leaves this off-season (a first round exit and he’s most likely gone).

So when it comes to the 5-8 seeds (and possibly even 4), there is a strong need in the Western Conference for someone to step up and who better than the Timberwolves? They have been terrible for years, and a change in the W-L standings would rejuvenate the fan base in a positive way, much like Toronto a few years ago, who were bad for a long time despite some success in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. They would offer young marketable talent on the biggest stage in the playoffs, and that would be good for the league to see “young” superstars in the postseason rather than retread teams like the Grizzlies and Rockets who would be automatic “one series and done” groups and would kill the ratings in their playoff matchups. And lastly, Thibs would be having these guys play all out in the most intense fashion possible. Yes, Thibs probably overworked his teams in the regular season, but Bulls playoff series under Thibs were always entertaining affairs where his players seemed to run through brick walls despite disadvantages in talent and luck (see Derrick Rose first ACL injury when the Bulls were a No. 1 seed). The Eastern Conference is benefiting from exciting series’ in the first rounds, especially from their 1-8 and 2-7 matchups this year. Something similar in the Western Conference would only help the NBA’s brand, and the Timberwolves seem primed to do that in the next couple of years.

Reason #3: Thibs and the Timberwolves will play a style of ball that will offer much-needed variety in today’s game.

With the Warriors winning the title, the trend now is to build teams in two ways: increasing tempo and relying more on the 3-point shot. Yet despite the Warriors’ success with this method, their copycats haven’t fared well so far in the early returns. New Orleans hired Alvin Gentry to make the Pelican a more “Warriors-like” team offensively, and they tanked despite making the playoffs the previous year under Monty Williams. The Kings and Vivek Ranadive wanted to bring a “fast pace” to the Kings and hired George Karl to do it. Well…the Kings led the league in tempo, but it still resulted in the Kings being in the lottery once again. And even the Bulls tried to put a stronger emphasis on tempo and offense, not just by firing Thibs, but hiring Fred Hoiberg from Iowa State, who ran an up-tempo style with the Cyclones. Well guess what? The Bulls missed the playoffs and struggled with team chemistry issues this season that made the ones under Thibs seem minute by comparison.

Yes it’s true: success breed copycats. But that being said, there hasn’t been a whole lot of success so far from other teams who have tried to copy Golden State’s blueprint to winning. Thankfully, under Thibs, Minnesota isn’t going to falling into the same trap as New Orleans, Sacramento and even Chicago.

Under Thibs, basketball fans can expect a slower pace and less emphasis on offense and the 3-point shot. That is how Thibs’ teams in Chicago rolled and guess what? Despite their “anti-analytics” scheme, they were a consistent participant in the playoffs. Sometimes, going against the grain is what is key to teams experiencing turn-around success. That is what Billy Beane does on a constant basis with the A’s: one year he’s getting high OBP guys who don’t have athleticism; the next year he’s getting fielding-first guys who may have low OBPs. For small markets, it’s finding those players or that style the market is ignoring and exploiting it for all its worth. Minnesota is not a destination place. It’s not LA or Miami. They need to exploit some kind of inefficiency to win in the NBA. That used to be 3 point shooting and pace, but with Golden State winning, that has become more valued. What is being ignored? Slower tempo, half court approaches on offense, and physicality on defense. Those are all things in Thibs’ coaching wheelhouse he can exploit on opposing teams, and utilize  with this Timberwolves team. And to be honest? The Timberwolves are already built for such a style, as they ranked 20th in the league in pace. This isn’t like a New Orleans or Chicago situation where they were going from one style radically to the other, and that should be a sign for Minnesota that they can experience success sooner rather than later with Thibs.

Yet, not only is the difference in style good for the Timberwolves, but for the league as well. Yes, the league is better than it has been for a long time, but the league gets boring when everyone tries to emulate one kind of style for success. We saw that in the 90’s when everyone tried to replicate the Knicks’ “physical” style of ball. We saw that in the 2000’s when everyone tried to mimic the Triangle in some way after the Bulls and Lakers’ success under Jackson. Now we’re seeing it with Golden State. Thibs won’t do that. He’ll unapologetic-ally implement his own system no matter how against the grain it is to current state of the NBA (and do it in a successful way, unlike Byron Scott, who does it like an arrogant jackass with the Lakers by burying young players like DeAngelo Russell and Julius Randle in crunch time).

And that’ll be good for the NBA. The league will have variety in the Timberwolves, and variety breeds better competition as well as new interest in the league from other fans.

So for those basketball fans who think the NBA has gone soft by relying too much on shooting and isn’t as physical as it was in the 90’s, well guess what? You have a new team to cheer for near the Great Lakes and it isn’t the Pistons, Bulls or Bucks.

You better start writing those “Thank you” notes to him now.

 

Who You Should Cheer for in the NBA Playoffs: Western Conference

Yesterday, I did a post on who you should cheer for in the Eastern Conference. Today is the Western Conference edition. So you know the drill: no stats, no analytics, just highly biased fan-opinion. Let’s get it on!

 

No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Houston Rockets

Let’s face it. Houston doesn’t have a chance. They have an interim coach in JB Bickerstaff who most likely will be replaced this off-season by a much bigger name. James Harden went from trendy 2015 MVP pick to classic “I don’t play defense and I make crappy turnovers” James Harden of previous years. Dwight is Dwight with all his on and off court issues, and the supporting cast has been tremendously disappointing this year after being key to the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run a year ago.

But I can see why people would cheer for the Rockets. The Warriors have set a NBA record with 73 wins. They are looking to make history and truly beat the Bulls for the moniker of “greatest team of all time”. That doesn’t happen if they don’t win a championship. But a loss in the first round? That would be something of epic proportions. I mean…that would be the single greatest upset of all time in any sports, no bones about it. And the Rockets have…somewhat of a shot…right? They have Harden and Howard. Those two certainly would give the Warriors a better shot than anything the Jazz would have brought (come on…Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors? Please).

And to be honest, I have soured a bit on the Warriors the past few years. You see, I grew up a Warriors fan during the lean days. I grew up with Antwan Jamison, Bob Sura and Erick Dampier. I saw them waste the potential of a Gilbert Arenas-Jason Richardson-Jamison core. I reveled in 2007’s “We Believe” team, only to see cheap ownership and overly egotistical Don Nelson (egotistical but lovable nonetheless) ruin the core two years later. When the Warriors broke through with Stephen Curry (who I was a huge fan of when the Warriors drafted; people forget that not everyone was in favor of the pick at the time), it seemed right. All the painful waiting had been worth it. Those days of Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson as our premiere 1-2 combo was a thing of the past.

However, then all the bandwagon fans jumped in. Suddenly the Warriors became the OKC Thunder: everyone’s suddenly favorite team. Family that used to talk Lakers now suddenly were “All In” on the Warriors. I grew tired of that bullshit. I grew tired of having to defend my Warriors fandom to a bunch of bandwagon fans. And thus, I started to cheer for the Kings. They sucked sure, but at least I wouldn’t be dealing with the insufferable bullshit of all these “newly minted” Warriors fans.

Despite this though, we (myself included) should be pulling for the Warriors, and not just in this series, but in the playoff in general. We could see history and no team has captured basketball’s attention like this Warriors bunch. Yes, the Bulls won 72 games. But they won it in a time where there wasn’t constant media scrutiny. They won it despite the game being much different. They won it where the talent level between the top and the bottom teams was a lot more lopsided than it is now. And they won it with a lot of veterans who were expected to be great. This Warriors team is still relatively young. Yes, there are vets like Iggy and Bogut, but Draymond, Curry, Klay and Barnes still are relatively early in their NBA careers. The Warriors don’t have the potential to be just the greatest team of all time this year, but for the next 3-5 years. That is crazy, and as a basketball fan we should revel in that potential and greatness and not see it spoiled by an inferior bunch, which Houston is.

Yes, I know the “Hipster” thing would be to cheer against Golden State. But don’t do it. Let’s see the Warriors let this ride. Let’s see them dispatch the Rockets and the rest of the Western Conference.

We’ll be all glad to say that we witnessed history when it is all said and done.

 

No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trailblazers

Chris Paul, Damian Lillard

 

No team has been more entertaining this year than the Blazers. Remember: this team lost four starters from last year’s playoff squad. FOUR!!! And they’re back in the playoffs and arguably more fun than the team a year ago. CJ McCollum and Damion Lillard have been one of the best 1-2 combos in the league, up there along with Curry and Thompson. Mason Plumlee has made everyone forget he was a Dookie. Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh have been an interesting and athletic duo that have given the Blazers all kinds of versatility in the post. The Blazers are young, they’re fun, and they play hard night in and night out. This is the kind of Blazers teams Portland fans have been hoping for years, and not only have they been successful this year, but they have set themselves up for a bright future in the next five as well.

And, the Blazers are going against a team that is so easy to hate. This is a Doc Rivers coached team that has Chris Paul, who may be the most chippy player in the league. They have insufferable players like JJ Redick (who continues to be an example of a hate-able Dookie) and Austin Rivers, who I’m still surprised is in the league. They have DeAndre Jordan who basically played all kinds of drama this year in terms of his free agency decision just so he could play a mom in a State Farm commercial. Blake Griffin is Blake Griffin and new owner Steve Ballmer is a lot less racist, but a lot more annoying not to mention sweaty. And for god sakes…look at those damn uniforms!

Unless you were an original fan of the Bill Walton-led Clippers, I don’t know how you can enjoy this team. Especially when they are playing a team like Portland. Portland is scrappy and overachieving, while the Clips are entitled and seem to always pale in the big moment. Terry Stotts is composed on the sideline; Rivers is always in the ass of some ref complaining over every little call. Trail Blazers fans have been with this team through thick and thin and the Sebastian Telfair-era. Clippers fans couldn’t even name who Loy Vaught is.

Seriously. If you’re cheering for this Clippers team, you are an ass hole. I know Portland isn’t a good matchup against this Clippers team, especially with a healthy Griffin. But God…I want them to pull the upset. I want Dame to go nuts. I want Mason Leonard to be streaky, crazy Leonard, like he was in the playoffs last year. Why? Because a first round exit and Kevin Durant going to the Lakers next year would devastate this Clippers fanbase beyond belief, and we’ll see a sharp regression in LA fans sporting those terrible jerseys in the Staples center next season.

Seeing less of those jerseys would be a victory for mankind people. Plain and simple. Go Blazers.

 

No. 3 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 Dallas Mavericks

Just FYI: I don’t like Mark Cuban. I think he’s self-centered and an overblown personality who imbues all the qualities of the “rich venture capitalist who shits all over the little guy, but convinces people that he is good for the economy because he wears jeans instead of expensive slacks.”Nothing was more glorious than seeing the 2007 Warriors totally shut Cuban up in the playoffs after Cuban’s Mavs teams had the best record in the NBA and was coming off a runner-up finish in the NBA Finals the previous year. Many people felt sorry for Cuban and the Mavs. I didn’t. He was tampering anyways before the free agency period, and of course, Cuban gets no serious kind of punishment, much like his insider trading on Wall Street.

But…I can’t get behind this Thunder team. Maybe I don’t like Oklahoma. Maybe I have ill-feelings about the Thunder stealing the Sonics. Maybe I secretly hate Steven Adams because he ripped off Adam Morrisons’ look and nobody is getting over his ass like they did with Morrison. Maybe I don’t like Billy Donovan and want his NBA career to look closer to Rick Pitino than Brad Stevens. Maybe I want Kevin Durant to walk and go somewhere in a bigger market that deserves and would utilize him more than the small market of OKC.

So, plain and simple, I can’t get behind this Thunder team. I love Durant and Westbrook. Serge Ibaka isn’t the player we thought he would be, but he’s still damn impressive. If this were the Sonics, I would be riding behind this Thunder team all day. But it’s not. It’s the Thunder. With their boring uniforms and lame mascot. Beyond the players, there’s nothing to really like about OKC.

Dallas on the other hand has been an enjoyable mish-mash to watch this year on League Pass. They really shouldn’t be all that impressive. Their starting center mixes between Zaza Pachulia and some dude I can never remember, though I know he is Lebanese or something. Their star player is Chandler Parsons, a third wheel in Houston. They have Raymond Felton and Deron Williams, both over the hill, running the show. And Charlie Villanueva, somehow in some damn way, gives them productive minutes.

This Mavericks teams shouldn’t win. On paper, the Kings look better.  But the Mavericks win. Dirk keeps defying age and keeps doing Dirk things. And Rick Carlisle continuously shows that he’s one of the best coaches in the league, up there with Pop from San Antonio. Seriously, other than Pop, who else could make the playoffs with this kind of talent?

I know Westbrook and Durant are fun, and I know Midwesterners might want to pull for OKC because they represent the Midwest in fan-appreciation and city size. But don’t. Let’s see Durant walk. Let’s see the Thunder implode. And let’s see the Mavs and Carlisle, despite their rag-tag collection, upset a team that really should have won 1 title by now, but hasn’t due to injuries, bad coaching and dumb personnel moves.

The city of Seattle will thank you with a free latte for doing it.

 

No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies

I love Grit n Grind, but this is Grind n Wheeze. Gasol? Out. Conley? Out. Grindfather. Barely walking. All this team has is Z-bo and a bunch of guys from the Iowa Energy. Memphis has no chance. Give Dave Joerger credit for getting this team to playoffs. But when it comes to competitiveness? Holy Cross had a better chance of winning in the first round than the Grizzlies.

So this is about San Antonio, arguably the second-best team in NBA history. Seriously. In any other year, the Spurs would be discussed as having one of the best seasons of all time, and unfortunately, the Warriors go out and win 73 games and steal all their spotlight. Just see anything with the Spurs out there and it’s always prefaced with the statement: “But the Warriors…”

And that is what makes the Spurs-Warriors Finals possibility so exciting. It’s the de-facto title game, really. It is going to be Kings-Lakers 2002 all over again in the sense that whoever wins this series is going to win the NBA Finals. And we need to see this. We need get immersed in this possible scenario where the Spurs and Warriors slug it out for seven games. It’s going to be the greatest Western Conference Finals in history and you should cheer that nothing gets in the way of it. Not the Grizzlies (not that it would happen anyways). Not the Clippers. Not even the Blazers, should they pull off the upset. The basketball world deserves Spurs-Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

Leonard and Curry. Pop vs. Kerr. The Bay Area vs. the Southwest. The new dynasty vs. the old guard. The storylines are endless.

So yeah…cheer for the Spurs. The Grizzlies would want you to anyways. They want this damn season to end as soon as possible. And we don’t need to see Matt Barnes celebrate anything either.

Who You Should Cheer for in the NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference

I’m not going to go all analytical like I usually do with my NBA posts. To be honest, while I have been up to date with the NBA season thanks to League Pass, a swirl of coaching, job and other things have kept me from really being fully immersed in the NBA season as I have been in years past. That being said, I wanted to do some kind of NBA Playoffs preview, even if it was brief and more tongue-in-cheek and less “stats-based”. In fact, rare for one of my basketball posts, I am not going to use any stats at all. This is just a 100% from the gut, totally biased look in terms of who you should cheer for in the Eastern Conference first round playoffs. If you like it, great. If you feel my opinions are un-founded, I get it and agree with you. They probably are, but that’s not going to stop me from expressing them.

Enough with all that. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference First Round.

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

I have a love-hate relationship with LeBron. I loved him when he started out his career, defended his Rookie of the Year award over Carmelo, and thought his performance against Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was one of the single-best playoff games in history. However, I hated him his first year in Miami for all that “Decision” hoopla, but I grew to love how he adjusted his game (mainly his back to the basket game) and truly became the alpha dog on those two championship Miami Heat teams. I liked that he came back to Cleveland, but I didn’t like how he used mainstream media again as his own personal PR firm (really when you think about it, the “Decision” and the SI “I’m Coming Home” piece really weren’t all that different, it’s just that we all liked the message more because we all resonate with that “coming home” feeling at one point or the other in our lives…more on that later). I really admired LeBron in the playoffs, especially in the Finals, as he pretty much won 2 games against the Golden State Warriors by himself.

And then Game 5 happened…and then all the “I’m the greatest player in the world” stuff…and then he got David Blatt fired mid-season this year, even though Blatt took them to the Finals and had them in first place in the East at the time and is a very good coach whom I liked from his Russia and Maccabi Tel Aviv days who didn’t sign up for the “LeBron circus” but adjusted anyways for the sake of his superstar and his team.

Seriously, Fuck LeBron. I am not questioning his talent or his hall-of-fame status. But he isn’t the player he once was, and he has gotten so into his own “persona” as Cleveland’s savior that everything he does both on and off the court just comes off as pretentious and disingenuous. And he hasn’t even been that good this year, as he is nowhere in the conversation when it comes to MVP, a rarity we haven’t seen in almost a decade. Add that with a supporting cast that includes a talented, but often-injured point guard (Kyrie Iriving), a post player who ransomed his old franchise to just become a spot-up shooter (Kevin Love) and a bunch of overpaid role players (Shumpert, Smith, Thompson…the list goes on) and it’s hard to cheer for this Cavs bunch. They’re talented, they deserve the No. 1 spot East, and when they are on, goddamn it they are tough to stop. But unless you’re from Cleveland, it’s hard to really get behind them and they don’t offer anything endearing except for the fact that they could bring a long-suffering city their first title in decades.

The Pistons on the other hand, really don’t have much of a chance. They lack a true point guard, and Andre Drummond, though a beast and one of the best “pure” low post players in the league currently behind Demarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, is so bad at free throws that you can’t play him in crunch time (as evidenced in their Game 1 loss). However, this is a Stan Van Gundy team and you can guarantee a couple of things:

1.) They are going to launch it. SVG made his bread in Orlando by surrounding Dwight with a whole bunch of shooters. The Magic went deep in the playoffs thanks to guys like Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick launching it from deep. The Pistons are built in that mold with guys like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris as the Lewis-type stretch 4’s and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ad Stanley Johnson providing the Redick-esque support. Unfortunately, SVG lacks a Jameer-like point guard. Reggie Jackson is too much of a gunner and ball killer, and unlike his former teammate Russell Westbrook, when he loses his shit, he loses his shit in a way that takes his team out of the game. His stupid technical foul basically killed any shot or hope the Pistons had in terms of coming back.

2.) SVG makes great adjustments, and he has them play with great intensity and tempo. SVG knows how to coach. He finds weaknesses well and makes great adjustments. He did that with the Pistons often-times this year, and got them in the playoffs for the first time since the “Sheed” days because of his ability to adjust on the fly. And furthermore, SVG is a great motivator. Yes, superstars butt heads with him, but this Pistons team doesn’t have a Dwight or Shaq or DWade superstar. Drummond is still young and impressionable, and he doesn’t have the kind of ego that sunk the Dwight-SVG relationship. These Pistons will go through a brick wall for SVG and that will be key, especially considering it is yet to be determined how Tyronn Lue will handle in his first playoff series as a head coach.

3-point-oriented, tough, a great coach, young, and playing against LeBron…I don’t see how you cannot cheer for the Pistons this first round.

 

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics

This is a tough one. Atlanta has a lot going for them. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are underrated and effective post players who go unnoticed because they play in Atlanta and don’t have the “big” personalities (i.e. they haven’t dated any major celebrity of note). Dennis Schroeder has an awesome name, an awesome nickname (“German Rondo”) and is a fun player to watch when he’s on. Mike Budenholzer is one of the best NBA coaches in the league, who still got a lot from his team this year, despite some down years from some key players (Kyle Korver especially).

But, damn, this Celtics team. They are…so…freaking…fun to watch. They blitz it on the court with their tempo, and they are all young, all fiery as hell (Marcus Smart, Evan “The Villain” Turner, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, just to name a few, all play with serious “chips on their shoulders”, so much so that it comes off as endearing, unlike Jackson of Detroit or any white guard from Duke where it comes off as annoying), and play with the kind of tenacity that makes you forget about the pretentious “Unbuntu” days when Doc Rivers complained endlessly to refs (seriously did he do any coaching? Or did he just leave that to Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank?), Kevin Garnett picked on point guards, and Paul Pierce was being carried out on wheelchairs, only to return 15 minutes later. I know Boston, that era brought you a title, but your current Celtics are way more endearing to us general NBA fans and make us forget not only about that insufferable team, but also the crappy weather and over-bearing nature of your New England population.

Back to the Celtics, they do have major some major issues. Isaiah Thomas is one of the most fun players in the league, and I hit myself on the head everyday as a Kings fan that they let him walk for practically nothing because DeMarcus Cousins didn’t like how he shook hands with Chris Paul after a meaningless mid-season loss to the Clippers. However, he’s going to struggle defensively against Jeff Teague and he is closer to Nate Robinson than Chris Paul when it comes to point-guard mold. And, they lack a true offensive post player (Amir Johnson gives you post defense, but not much post offense), which will make things interesting against Horford and Millsap. That being said, despite these glaring disadvantages, you still feel like the Celtics are the favorites in this series because of their depth (They can play 10-11 deep, though losing Avery Bradley hurts big time), their breakneck pace and 3-point heavy approach (they nearly came back on the road against Atlanta despite being down as much as 29 points at one point), and Brad Stevens, who really should be Coach of the Year along with Portland’s Terry Stotts.

Speaking of Stevens, I have totally turned around on him since he was hired away from Butler. I didn’t know if he was going to be a good fit at the NBA, because it seemed like his personality and style didn’t mesh well with the NBA game. He wasn’t a former NBA player, and he seemed to rely more on unheralded talent to gain long-term success. I figured he would be overwhelmed or struggle to mesh with top talent and egos, which he never had before at Butler. However, Stevens has totally turned around this Celtics team in the post-Unbuntu era, and somehow molded into the kind of teams he coached at Butler: tough, relentless and well-prepared on a night-in, night-out basis (though to be fair, Danny Ainge really built this team to his strengths as a coach; a poor GM wouldn’t have given Stevens the amount of young talent and patience in a market like Boston; case in point: New York). And, he’s really good at drawing up inbounds plays. Jon Barry on the broadcast was gushing about his in-bounds play artistry like a 42-year-old overweight divorcee would about Pornhub now offering VR videos.

This one is a coin toss. But, the combination of Stevens, youth and fun style of play not only make the Celtics more endearing in this one, but also in a potential second-round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.

 

No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets

This Hornets team came out of nowhere, really. Two years ago, in their final years of the Bobcats, they surprised everyone and made the playoffs. Then last year, in their first year of their rebirth as the Hornets, they acquired Lance Stephenson, and consequently chemistry went to shit, and they finished in the Lottery. With lower expectations this year, they acquired a bunch of guys coming off down years (Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, etc.), got rid of Stephenson, drafted Frank the Tank from Wisconsin, decided to jack up more 3 pointers, and now they’re the six-seed in the playoffs. It’s fucking nuts how the NBA works sometimes.

The Hornets are the underdogs this playoffs, akin to Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s something endearing in that description. However, despite their “Island of the Lost Toys” roster, this Heat team is infinitely more interesting and worth cheering for. Here’s three reasons why:

1.) This Chris Bosh health issue sucks. Nobody deserves a playoff run without Lebron more than this guy. I watched him live when he was with the Raptors and he truly is a unique talent that sacrificed more than people think to win two titles with the Heat. I’m convinced that he and DWade could be just as competitive as LeBron and the “Misfit Army” of the Cavs. But, this health issue with the blood clotting is keeping him out, and thus, we are deprived of that potential Miami-Cleveland matchup that would be all kinds of intriguing and fun. And the worst part is that Bosh cares so much about all this. He really seems like a truly genuine guy who wants to be out there on the court, and is not just posturing because he’s the Heat’s top-paid guy (along with Wade). I freaking hate this. Fate can be so cruel. I just hope this issue doesn’t force an early retirement, as I want at least one more year where Bosh could have a shot against LeBron in the playoffs.

2.) Goran Dagic doesn’t get enough love or appreciation from NBA fans for his talent and impact. He played in the shadow of Steve Nash, then was on lukewarm Suns teams that never made the playoffs post-Nash, and then went to the Heat post-LeBron where nobody gave a shit about the Heat except for the 50 percent of the Miami sporting fan population who stayed around when Lebron left town. Dragic has just always gotten overlooked. People talk about Kyrie. People talk about John Wall. People talk about Jeff Teague and Kyle Lowry. But Dragic? Never. And it’s too bad because he’s one of the most complete point guards in the league. He deserves to get more pub, and a potential opportunity to carve up Kemba, Lowry and maybe Irving en route to an Eastern Conference Championship would be the perfect scenario to get him more of the respect he deserves when it comes to being compared to other point guards in the Eastern Conference.

3.) And speaking of people who don’t get love, what about Erik Spoelstra? I love him because he’s Filipino, but with all this Coach of the Year talk, Spoelstra doesn’t get mentioned in the convo. He was a hell of a coach pre-Lebron and is showing that he’s a hell of a coach post-Lebron, but he’s barely mentioned as one of the best coaches in the game. Spoelstra has done wonders with this squad, molding them into their own unique blend without LeBron and has them playing as one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference as of this moment (especially true after their demolishing of Charlotte in game 1). Spoels, like Dragic, needs more love, and a deep run would do so, not to mention it would be an especially juicy story if it came at the expense of LeBron.

This is a tough series, because I like the Hornets a lot and have enjoyed following them this year on league pass. But this Miami team has more long-term potential, especially since they may be the team best-equipped to de-throne the Cavs. And that is why you should cheer for them not just now, but in the further rounds as well.

 

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers

I don’t think Toronto will get far in the playoffs. And this is a tough series for them. Paul George is looking like Paul George pre-broken leg. Frank Vogel is one of the more underrated coaches in the league. The Pacers play a tough, physical kind of game that I think guys like Demar Derozan struggle with. And that was on full display in game 1, as the Raptors dropped game 1 at home, continuing their trend from the past two years of disappointing in the playoffs despite the tremendous support and regular-season success.

That being said, I am pulling for them. Dwane Casey is a much better coach than people think, and I think he gets way too much shit for the Raptors’ playoff woes than deserved. He has put the Raptors in situations to succeed, it’s just that a combo of youth and lack of somebody stepping up in the moment has done the Raptors in these past couple of years, not something Casey really could control. (What’s he supposed to do? Put magic dust on Derozan?) The Raptors fans are great and really have pulled for this team the past five years or so in a way that shows how big basketball really is in the Maple State. They basically treat every playoff game at home like Kansas City does for the USMNT during the World Cup at Power and Light (and like those KC fans, the Raptors fans get their hearts ripped out in big games…seriously, beating Algeria is NOT THAT BIG A DEAL soccer fans). Lowry, despite his own issues, is a gritty type of player who really has come a long ways from his days with the Grizzlies, and Jonas Valanciunas, one of my favorite Lithuanian players ever along with Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Sabonis and Domantas Sabonis (see what I did with the names there?) has also developed into one of the more underrated bigs in the game who can bang and board down low with any other post player in the NBA while still maintaining some offensive skill and touch around the basket.

But the biggest reason? I want to see them break the playoff hex. Being in bad losing streaks like this suck, especially when it is on such a big stage (as a Gonzaga fan, I think we can relate to the Raptors’ playoff disappointment) These fans care too much and have been through too much shit after those losses to Brooklyn and Washington in consecutive years. Furthermore, this team is young and built in a way that is unique compared to other teams in the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. Their roster is filled with guys who overachieve and overcome the modest expectations people have for them year after year. Lowry doesn’t have what it takes to be an elite point guard. Derozan is too perimeter-oriented. Jonas doesn’t have the skills to compete with other post players. Demarre Carroll doesn’t have a position in the NBA. Casey is dubious as a head coach as evidenced from his Minnesota days. And despite those expectations, the Raptors continue to win and continue to get better and better. I don’t think anyone thought the Raptors would be the second-best team in the Eastern conference going into this year and here they are, the No. 2 seed after one of the best seasons in franchise history.

But that would all go to crap if they lose to the Pacers. And they don’t deserve that. Not after all the progress they’ve made and the season they had. I’m not saying they can or will go far. I think Miami would be too much for them in the second round. But they are better than Indiana and they need to step it up. The fans and the organization deserve to at least get out of the first round for the first time since the Vince Carter days.

And lastly…the Raptors have super-fan Drake. Let’s not see Drake jump off this bandwagon after another first round exit. I want to see him courtside cheering for the Raptors in Miami in the second round.

That would just be oh-so-fitting.

Melo and the New York Knicks Could Be Better Than Expected…If Fisher Can Stay Out of the Way

Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks could be better than people expect…as long as Head Coach Derek Fisher doesn’t provide any more distractions.

The New York Knicks have been an unmitigated train wreck the past two seasons. Two years ago, after finishing 54-28 the year before (which included an Atlantic Division title but a disappointing 2nd round exit in the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers), the Knicks failed to live up to expectations that they could compete with LeBron and the Heat and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference. Though Carmelo Anthony put up a banner All-Star year for the Knicks, averaging 27.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg on 45.2 percent shooting in 77 games, and put up 10.7 win shares and a PER of 24.4, the Knicks’ franchise player failed to get much help from his supporting cast. Tyson Chandler was the team’s 2nd best player on a Win Shares basis (4.9) and he only played in 55 games due to injury. Amare Stoudamire and JR Smith had regression seasons (3.8 and 3.7 win shares, respectively) and Raymond Felton had one of his classic “off” years (i.e. he rested on his laurels and didn’t stay in shape), as evidenced by his PER dropping from 15.9 in his first season in New York to 12.9 in year two. .

With all these regressions from veteran players who were expected to be key contributors, the Knicks struggled to find any consistency on the court despite Melo’s best efforts. Their most glaring weakness was on defense as they ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. And thus, instead of repeating as Atlantic Division champs and challenging the Heat and Pacers in the East, the Knicks missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Though the Knicks expected W-L (39-43) was a bit better than their actual, it didn’t hide the fact that 2013-2014 was a disappointing campaign, further evidenced by their SRS (Simple Rating System) of -1.40, which ranked them 19th in the league.

After the year concluded, Phil Jackson was hired as Team President to restructure the franchise from the inside-out, and the first one to go was head coach Mike Woodson, who failed to build on the momentum generated from his first two seasons as head coach (Woodson was 72-34 as Knicks head coach prior to 2013-2014). After a failed run at Steve Kerr (who took the Warriors job and led them to a NBA title), Jackson hired former player Derek Fisher, who had just recently retired as a player. Though Fisher had no coaching experience, Jackson hired him because he was a respected player in the league among his peers, and he knew the “Triangle” system from his playing days that Jackson wanted implemented in the Knicks organization.

In the off-season, Jackson’s presence was felt, as he let Chandler, Felton and Andrea Bargnani walk, and only signed Jason Smith in free agency. Instead of relying on veterans who had been inconsistent, Jackson decided to go a more organic route, trying to build within with guys like Cole Aldrich, who had showed some promise in 2013-2014 and Smith, a crafty inside-out center whose skill set was similar to Triangle centers Jackson had coached in the past like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Bill Cartwright. The Knicks were trying to craft a new identity, similar to Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams, where the team complemented the superstar (in this case Melo) in the Triangle offensive system.

Unfortunately, the Triangle never took off, and by mid-year, with the Knicks clearly going to miss the playoffs for a second straight year, Jackson shipped off mainstays Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland for draft picks and expiring contracts. By February, Stoudamire was bought out, ending a relationship that started out great, but slowly died out in frustrating fashion (few people remember how exciting Amare was in his first year in New York before Melo arrived). With bare bones for a roster, and Melo only playing 40 games due to injury, the Knicks finished 17-65. Not only was it the worst record in the league (something that isn’t easy to do when you think that the Sixers seemed to be shooting for that since Draft night), but they also were putrid when it came to offensive rating (29th), defensive rating (30th) and SRS (30th). Knicks fans have been use to disappointment and losing in the past (see the documentary “When the Garden was Eden” to get an idea of how bad the Knicks used to be before the Walt Frazier and Willis Reed days), but even this was tough to stomach. Just three years ago, the Knicks were thinking they could compete for a NBA title, now they were back to stage 1 of a total rebuild.

2014-2015 couldn’t have gone worse for Knicks fans. That being said, I think the Knicks will improve in 2015-2016, and I think a healthy and motivated Carmelo Anthony will be a big reason why (along with a better suited roster for his talents). However, whether the Knicks see a modest 8-12 game win improvement or something more substantial will fall on the shoulders of second year head coach Fisher, and his improvement from 2014-2015 which, unlike Melo, is something I have less confidence in.

Rookie Kristaps Porzigins will complement Melo well on the court, and allow Melo to play his more natural position of small forward.

The Knicks have struggled defensively the past couple of seasons, and the most common idea is that Melo is to blame. Critics cite his stronger focus on “offense” as a reason why the Knicks defense hasn’t clicked, consequently contributing to the recent team decline in performance on the court and in the win column. I am not saying that Carmelo Anthony is an elite or even above-average defensive player. But he is certainly not as bad as people think, and he has proven to use his 6’8, 230 pound frame to his advantage.

The problem the past few years for Melo defensively is that he’s been playing mostly out of position at the power forward spot. In 2012-2013, Melo played power forward 72 percent of the time and in 2013-2014 he played the position 62 percent of the time. Playing the stretch 4 can be an advantage for a team on the offensive end (which Melo took advantage of quite a bit thanks to his impeccable mid-range game), but on the defensive end it can be taxing as well as ineffective. And that proved to be the case, as more “physical” power forwards tended to take their toll on Anthony. Furthermore, considering how much the Knicks depended on him on the offensive end (his usage rate was 35.6 in 2012-2013, which led the league, and 32.2 in 2013-2014), it made sense that Melo may have struggled or put less effort on the defensive side of things. When you play a full-season, it’s difficult to play 100 percent on both ends. Something has to give, and in this case, that proved to be Melo going toe to toe in the block with NBA power forwards. When Chandler was healthy, it wasn’t a bad thing because he could clean up any of Melo’s mistakes. But when Chandler wasn’t healthy (as in 2013-2014), his defensive inefficiencies were made more glaringly obvious, though as stated before, considering Melo is not a natural power forward, it should have been expected.

Last year, Melo made the transition to small forward more, as evidenced by him playing small forward 77 percent of the time (his time at PF dipped to 22 percent). However, Melo only played 40 games, so this change was hardly noticed or had any impact, especially considering in the 40 games Melo did play, he struggled through nagging injuries. But, at the SF position, Melo’s game shines the most. As mentioned before, he is an impeccable mid-range shooter, a lost art in this era of efficiency and the 3-point shot, but still a talent nonetheless if the player is exceptional in the mid-range, which is the case with Melo. In the past 3 seasons, Melo has shot 44.1 percent, 44.7 percent, and 44.5 percent from 16 feet to the 3 point line, the area typical of the mid-range shot. Those percentages are extremely strong, especially when you compare him to players like Kobe, who has never shot over 42.9 percent from that distance and that was in 2009-2010; and LeBron, who shot 44.7 percent in 2012-2013, but has seen his shot regress to 36.6 percent and 37.7 percent in the mid-range the past two seasons, respectively. Analytic people might not favor the mid-range, but they will agree that if someone can do it consistently well, then it is worth it for the team, and that is the case with Melo who has proved he can shoot the mid-range effectively on a consistent year to year basis. Heck, look at his 62 point game below from a couple of years ago and you can see how his mid-range game opens up so many things for him as a scorer. It is so crucial to his ability to dominate as an offensive player, something that hasn’t been seen since MJ.

But while the mid-range is the strongest aspect of Melo’s game, his diversity of scoring skills (which he has developed tremendously from his Denver days) is what makes him one of the NBA’s best pure scorers. And furthermore, it also makes him more dangerous when he is playing small forward, where he outmatches opposing small forwards in terms of size. While Melo can torch teams from the mid-range, he can post up smaller wings in the post, or he can stretch them out and hit the 3 when needed. Prior to his injury filled-year, the past few seasons had seen Melo utilize the 3 point shot a bit more. In 2012-2013, 27.8 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and in 2013-2014, 25.3 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Even last year, 22.2 percent of his shots were from 3-point land, which still would surpass any percentage he sported from his Denver days (the highest 3pt FGA percentage he had with the Nuggets was 14.6 percent, which was his rookie season). And though he shot more from beyond the arc, he proved that it is worth it, as his 3pt FG percentage was 37.9 in 2012-2013 and 40.2 percent in 2013-2014. Though it fell to 34.1 percent in 2014-2015, Melo was unhealthy, and considering he has had a full off-season to recover, and judging from his early results so far in pre-season (where he is looking like Old Melo again), it would not be surprising to see his 3-point percentage jump back to that 2012-2014 range.

With his ability to take and own smaller defenders in the post with his size, and stretch cheating or lumbering defenders with his mid-range and 3-point shooting ability, it makes more sense for Melo to see more time at the Small Forward position. But of course, in order to do that, the Knicks need to have a sound option at the 4 spot, which they haven’t really had the past few years.

And that is where rookie Kristaps Porzingis comes in.

Porzingis, the Knicks’ first round pick (and 4th overall) in the most recent NBA Draft, may not be a household or popular name with typical Knicks fans. And it is understandable (though unfair and unfortunate) that the nightmares of Darko and Tskitishvilli come to mind with the drafting of Porzingis. But, Porzingis is a multi-talented player who fits into what Jackson wants to do with this team. Early in the Summer League and Preseason, Porzingis has showed a strong, inside-outside ability and a willingness to go toe to toe with physical power forwards. He hasn’t always been successful, and he still needs to get stronger, but I believe the early results have been promising so far. At the very least, he takes pressure off of Melo from playing the 4, which will open up things more for Melo on the offensive end, and put less pressure on him on the defensive end. If fans are patient with him, it would not be surprising to see Porzingis as the Knicks’ third or second best player as soon as next season. He is only 20 years old, but take a look at some of the highlights of him below and it’s easy to see why the Knicks drafted him over more proven prospects like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson.

Again. He’s only 20 years old. And for those that are thinking “Another Darko”, Jackson has assembled this roster to support the big man from Latvia. European players like Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic (who both will be key to the Knicks’ on court success) will be strong mentors to Porzingis who can also relate to him as fellow European players who adjusted to life and play in America. That is something Darko never had and undoubtedly stunted his development early in Detroit. Already, Porzingis has cited some good rapport and mentoring from Vujacic, and that is a good sign that will not only help Porzingis’ development, but make him more effective on the court, which consequently will make the Knicks, as well as Melo better this season.

Derek Fisher will need to rely and empower Anthony if he wants to keep his title as Knicks head coach

This Knicks team will be better in 2015-2016. If Calderon stays healthy, he will certainly be a better fit for this offense and team than Felton ever was. Vujacic is an underrated 3-bomber who has proven to fit well in Jackson’s Triangle. Free agent post pickups like Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn and wing Aaron Afflalo will make the Knicks not only a better defensive team (which has been lacking the past couple of years), but also a tougher, and more well-rounded squad as well. All the pieces are in place, frankly, for a dark horse season where the Knicks could surprise some people in the Atlantic as well as the Eastern Conference. Considering the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers all get better with some key off-season acquisitions, that is not an easy statement for me to say. Nonetheless, I really truly believe that the Knicks’ off-season was one of the more subtle, yet effective ones around the league.

But unfortunately, what makes me hesitant that the Knicks will live up to that “dark horse” status is Fisher as head coach.

Last year, Fisher looked overwhelmed and under-qualified to lead the Knicks, even for “first year head coach with no coaching experience” standards. Fisher struggled to find an offensive or defensive identity with this team, and they often looked lost and disjointed as a team on the court, with no leadership or sense of direction. Now, I know by February the Knicks were obviously playing for draft position, but so were the Sixers, and Brett Brown seemed to have his team prepared night in and night out. You can still tell a well-coached team even when they are tanking, and the Knicks were far from that in every aspect of the game.

Now, the adjustment from year 1 to year 2 is huge for a coach. We even saw that with Jason Kidd, who started off horrendously as a head coach only to lead a Bucks team, which had the worst record in the league the year before he arrived, to a playoff berth and a six-game slugfest with the Bulls despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league. It is possible Fisher really learned from his first year and has made some adjustments. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthier roster and some more established talent that fits the Triangle better. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthy Melo. Fisher seems to be well-liked by players around the league and Melo doesn’t seem to be an exception to that rule. It is not out of the question to think Fisher will empower and put the leadership responsibility of the team squarely on Melo like Jackson did with MJ, Shaq and Kobe.

But there are so many things that make me skeptical of Fisher. Last year’s record and performance is one thing. However, I think of his time as the Union player’s rep where he basically allowed the Players Union to get swindled by Billy Knight during the lockout. I have been utterly disgusted by his poor decision-making in this whole Matt Barnes ex-wife fiasco (though I do put 90 percent of the fault of this situation on Matt Barnes, who has proven once again to be a jerk of massive proportions). Fisher has the potential to be a good coach and the coach Melo and this Knicks team needs. But he doesn’t have a great track record beyond his on-court playing days, and while that isn’t a total indicator for how a coach will perform (Mark Jackson had his off-the-court issues too, but he experienced on court success with the Warriors), it certainly doesn’t help the perception that he has everything under control, which is essential as a NBA head coach.

Maybe this Barnes incident is just a blip on the radar. Maybe the player’s union stuff was more Knight and Fisher was just the scapegoat because he was the Player’s union president. The past is the past. But, the bottom line is this: the Knicks have real potential. They could surprise people, especially if Melo is healthy, as he says, and they get a full season from Calderon. This roster fits what Jackson wants to do with this franchise in ways last year’s couldn’t even imagine. And it’s Fisher’s responsibility to make that happen. Fisher and Jackson may have a great relationship from their Laker days, but Phil is too competitive, and Knicks fans are too restless and impatient to put up with another season like last year.

Keep an eye on Fisher. Keep an eye on Melo. Keep an eye on the Knicks. 2015-2016 could be the year the Knicks turn the corner or when they make another change.

And you can guarantee that if it’s the latter, that change will begin with Fisher.

Homecoming Hurrah: Is There Hope for Former No.1 Pick Anthony Bennett Back in Canada?

Anthony Bennett has been a stud in FIBA play for Canada, but he hasn’t been able to break through in the league with Cleveland or Minnesota. Will the former No. 1 pick find his niche with his hometown Raptors?

It’s official. Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, the first Canadian to ever be drafted No. 1 overall (followed by fellow Canadian Andrew Wiggins being drafted No.1 the next drat), is back in his home country of Canada. After the Timberwolves bought out the remaining year of his contract, Bennett cleared waivers and signed with the Toronto Raptors for a 1 year, $947,000 deal, not bad change considering that Bennett will still be getting the $3.65 million from the Timberwolves in the buyout deal. Nonetheless, it is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for Bennett, who will be on his 3rd team in 3 years. Though always seen as a stretch for the No. 1 pick, Cleveland, Minnesota and NBA fans in general surely expected more than what Bennett has produced his first two seasons in the league.

In his rookie campaign, Bennett was injured and out-of-shape in Cleveland, which limited his court time and production (he only played in 52 games and averaged 12.8 MPG). In his second season, he was traded along with fellow Canadian and No.1 pick Wiggins in the LeBron “super-deal”, and many expected Bennett to have a better opportunity to improve in a rebuilding situation rather than a competitive one in Cleveland (which was the case with LeBron arriving back home). However, he was unable to find a fit on the young Wolves squad amidst Wiggins, Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and Ricky Rubio. His minutes only improved to 15.7 MPG and his stats only improved slightly across the board (6.9 PER to 11.4 PER; minus-0.4 win shares to 0.3). Yes, the class he was part of wasn’t good at the top (though foreign picks like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo are looking like steals and may end up being the cream of the crop along with Nerlens Noel, who is already a plus-plus defensive player after his first full year in the league), but even compared to his peers, Bennett pales mightily. His career win shares in negative-0.1, which ranks him 54th out of the 60 players drafted that year. Bennett may not be a bust just yet, but he hasn’t done anything so far in his first two years to prove that narrative wrong either.

So far, the biggest thing people remember of Bennett’s career so far is the wild reaction from fans, other draft picks and commentators when he was surprisingly selected No. 1, as evidenced in the video below:

Again, the shock from Bill Simmons’ “Whoa!” The hands on the back of the necks of the Cleveland Cavs fans in attendance. The shock on Noel’s face, unable to even look in Bennett’s direction. Hell, I think even David Stern, who was performing his last NBA Draft as commissioner, was shocked, as he took a second to pause before announcing Bennett’s name over the loud speakers to the passionate NBA fans in New York City. All profiled in the video demonstrated such a state of utter disbelief that has been a microcosm of the Bennett pick and his early NBA career: how the heck did he go Number One in the NBA Draft?

Nonetheless, scrape away the No. 1 pick aura. It was a lousy draft that really had no consensus No. 1 pick going in. He may rate as one of the lesser No. 1 picks in the NBA Draft’s history, but he won’t be the worst, as long as he stays healthy, which he has done for the most part (no missed seasons like some No. 1 picks). It’s easy to understand the performance in the first two years as well. He just wasn’t in prime physical condition due to nagging injuries prior and during his rookie year, and in Minnesota, it was understandable that he was unable to crack Flip Saunder’s rotation, especially with more proven and traditional bigs like Nikola Pekovic and Dieng (and later Kevin Garnett), and wings that Saunders was more familiar with such as Muhammad, Thaddeus Young and Chase Budinger. Lastly, it’s difficult to see where Bennett projects in the league position-wise: he is not quick enough to be a regular on the wing at small forward, but he is not big enough to be a regular at the 4 position either.

There certainly are a lot of warts with Bennett’s tenure in the NBA, and his game overall has been hard to define and project ever since he was at UNLV (is he a 3 or 4 is the biggest debate concerning Bennett; some argue he has to be a 3 to last in this league, but on a BS Report with Bill Simmons, Steve Nash remarked that Bennett is a more natural 4 whose preference is to play like a stretch 4; this isn’t exactly pushover analysis, as Nash is currently the GM for the Canadian Men’s National Team). But, as evidenced during the Pan American Games and FIBA Americas Tournament, Bennett can put up games like the one below:

It’s easy to see why scouts and organizations were so enamored with Bennett when they see him play for his home country. He plays confident. He shows surprising athleticism and ability to drive to the rim. He can hit the 3-pointer with regularity and ease. His post game is still a bit raw, as I don’t think he is truly a natural post player and still needs to work on his footwork around the paint (as do many young big men in the NBA). That being said, what he lacks in physical skills he makes up intangibles. Bennett has the aggressiveness, body and strength to overpower smaller wings on the block, while still maintaining the good shooting touch and quickness with the dribble to beat bigger forwards who are with him out on the perimeter. When it comes to FIBA play, Bennett makes his naysayers question a bit for dubbing him a “bust” and “one of the worst No. 1 picks ever”.

But unfortunately for Bennett, NBA legacies are determined by NBA games, not FIBA ones. Maybe Bennett will simply be a greater international competition player than a NBA one. Maybe he will find a team in Europe or another foreign country that will appreciate that FIBA success and he won’t be judged by the stigma of being a former No. 1 pick. But if he wants to be more than just a FIBA player and stay in the league, he will have to transition those intangibles he showcases in FIBA play to the NBA court. At times last year, Bennett showed that in Minnesota, and you can see it below in his highlight tape from last year. There were at times Bennett flashed the “Team Canada” swagger and brilliance with the Timberwolves last season. Unfortunately, for Bennett and the Wolves, those moments were too few and far between.

There are a lot of things to like though about Bennett and his new team. First all, I truly think Bennett appreciates being Canadian and playing in front of home-country fans. Yes, FIBA competition is a lot different from the NBA. But, there is a special electric charge some players get when representing their country. Toronto provides Bennett that same kind of outlet as Canada’s only NBA team. If there is a NBA organization that could motivate Bennett in the same way that the Canadian National Team does during FIBA competitions in the summer, it has to be the Raptors with their fervent and heavily nationalistic fan base. (Seriously, can you argue that with their “We the North” campaign?)

Another benefit in Bennett’s favor is that it will be easier to crack the rotation than it was in Cleveland and even Minnesota. The Raptors won 49 games, finished as the winner of the Atlantic Division in the East (though the division was pretty lousy, as the sub.500 Celtics finished second), and were one of the better offensive teams in the NBA (4th overall in Offensive Rating). But, there is a lot to be determined with this Raptors roster this season. The Raptors lost long-time post player Amir Johnson and valuable scoring wings Lou Williams and Grievis Vasquez to free agency, and while they did sign DeMare Carroll from the Raptors, it’ll be interesting to see how Carroll fares offensively transitioning from Mike Budenholzer’s system in Atlanta. That is not to say Bennett will leap Carroll by any means, but if Carroll struggles to adapt to head coach Dwane Casey’s system, it’ll be interesting to see who minutes and shots will go to at the small forward position off the bench.

The most interesting position where Bennett could fit in though will be at power forward. Though Patrick Patterson has been good, he is far from spectacular, as evidenced by his 14.6 PER and meager 8.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 26.6 mpg last year. However, Patterson fit in with the Raptors as an excellent stretch four, as he took 52.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and hit 37.1 percent of them. Patterson and Bennett’s games are similar, and Bennett may be a better ball-handler and a bit more athletic on the wing. It’ll be interesting to see if Casey utilizes Bennett in a similar way to Patterson and maybe cut Bennett some of Patterson’s minutes. After all, Bennett could provide the same kind of arsenal that Patterson already brings, but with a bit more athleticism, positional versatility and obviously, more youth. That being said, Patterson won’t be giving up his minutes easy, as Patterson really established himself on this team last season as a key contributor (his 6.1 win shares were 4th most on the team) as well as fan favorite.

Bennett certainly could have fit in Portland (where his national team coach Jay Triano is an assistant) as well as Charlotte and Philly (where there were more obvious playing opportunities). But, I think the Raptors situation is the best for Bennett now. He needs to be in a place where he’s comfortable and he’s been the most comfortable and passionate as a player when he’s wearing the Red and White for Canada. The Raptors should give him the same kind of energy: he’s representing his country in another way, and realizing the dream of finally playing for his hometown team growing up only adds more fuel to Bennett’s fire. Bennett has always made it known how much he liked the Raptors growing up and has been impressed with Toronto fans, and that was on display in this interview last year with fellow Canadian and former teammate Tristan Thompson:

And while all the home country and hometown team ties are important, let’s not forget the most important aspect for Bennett and his NBA future: he’s in a good situation where he can compete and earn playing time right away for a competitive, playoff-seeking team. Granted, it won’t be starting playing time, and I doubt it’ll be in the 20-minute marks, especially early-on, but he’ll have a shot to make his mark and perhaps earn more if he can play loose and display his versatile offensive game. His skill set and size are a need for a team that is a bit shaky in the post, and his ability to shoot the 3 as well as score in the paint and finish with authority in the fast break will help give the Raptors a valuable option off the bench, which will help the keep competitive in the NBA Eastern Conference.

The big question about Bennett is whether NBA fans should have any hope going further for the guy after how bad his first two years have been. I think so. I don’t know if he’ll be a major star in the league, heck, I am not even sure if he can be a regular starter on a competitive team. But, as a key role player, a 7th-8th man who can stretch defenses and find multiple ways to score in limited 16-22 minute stretches? To me, that is possible for Bennett, even as soon as next year.

That kind of production will make him worth much more than the $947,000 the Raptors will pay him next year.

And that kind of production too will at least give him a better legacy than Greg Oden and Darko Milicic as well.

Can Mike Malone Revive the Denver Nuggets?

Mike Malone has said all the right things so far in Denver…but what else can he do to make the Nuggets competitive again?

Mike Malone’s hire in Denver generated a lot of buzz this off-season. And rightfully so. After getting canned early in his second year in Sacramento, despite getting off to a “better than expected start” and being the one coach that actually was a favorite of Boogie Cousins, the Kings fell apart without his leadership (though the jury is still out on George Karl), and people began to realize that maybe Malone was more successful to the Kings’ success than management initially thought or gave him credit for. (Sacramento Kings fans of course will be quick to point this out and on constant occasion).

Now, Malone will get a second chance, as he succeeds Brian Shaw, a once-heralded assistant whose initial head coaching job in Denver was an amazing thud. The Nuggets failed to make the playoffs in any of his two years at the helm, let alone have a winning record. And furthermore, the Nuggets were filled with internal turmoil, ranging from style of play to his inability to motivate his young players. Injuries certainly didn’t help his tenure, but this is the NBA, and this was a Nuggets team that won 57 games and earned a No. 3 seed in the West prior to his arrival. It’s not like he was leading the Philadelphia 76ers here where the cupboard was bare and there were zero expectations.

Malone definitely will be a breath of fresh air for an organization that has been a bit rudderless the past couple of years after the departure of Karl (who was let go) and Masai Ujiri, who is now the current General Manager of the Toronto Raptors (and doing wonders there). However, despite his strong work ethic, and ability to work with “volatile” personalities, he will have his work cut out for him in Denver. It is obvious that the Josh Kroenke and the Nuggets ownership group expect the Nuggets to be immediate contenders (at least for a playoff spot), or else they wouldn’t have parted ways with Shaw so quickly. Lucky for Nuggets fans, Malone has been on this boat before, and under much murkier and unpredictable management circumstances as well (I mean, who thought Malone would be fired after the start he had? Yes, they faded a bit when Boogie went down, but every Kings fan and media member has constantly said the timing of the move was ill-advised and ended up costing the Kings any chance of competitiveness). It probably goes without saying that Malone learned from his time in Sacramento, and will have the right plan going forward, especially when it comes to working with an overbearing and lofty-thinking management (not as bad as Vivek and Co., but Korenke isn’t Philly or Minnesota management here either).

Malone has said pretty much all the right things. He promises up-tempo basketball, which is not a surprise since the Nuggets circumstances (high elevation) and history (Westhead, Karl, etc.) has always favored that kind of play. However, he also plans to incorporate stronger defense in that mold of play, something that has not been seen quite often with the Run and Gun Nuggets teams (they always were offensively-focused squads). Furthermore, there also seems to be a plan in place for more structure and discipline, especially in-season, something that fell apart toward the end of Shaw’s tenure (the no shoot-around due to let guys party thing didn’t seem to go well, especially with players like Ty Lawson having DUI issues during the season). If any new coach won their introductory press conference and off-season, one would have to think the trophy would go to Malone.

But Malone also won his press conference in Sacramento, and though he showed signs of breakthrough, he still overall had a losing record in his short tenure there (he went 39-67 as head coach of the Kings). What will Malone need to do to truly be successful in Denver? What needs to fall in place?

Let’s take a look at a few things to pay attention as the Nuggets enter training camp and build up to the start of the 2015-2016 campaign.

Making Danilo Gallinari a Crucial Part of the Offense Again

Zach Lowe wrote a pretty good piece examining the importance of Danilo to the Nuggets’ chances this year and I couldn’t agree more. For someone that was in the Denver area during their solid 2012-2013 campaign, it was obvious that the Nuggets’ chances were sunk when Danilo tore his ACL and was lost for the playoffs and the 2013-2014 season. Gallinari was averaging 17.9 ppg, 1.16 PPP and a true shooting percentage of 56.1 percent on an increased usage rate of 21.3 percent (up .6 percent from the previous year). After being more hesitant the previous year from beyond the arc, the Italian sensation embraced the 3-pointer more (41.6 percent attempt rate, up from 39.3 percent in 2011-2012) and it payed off. He produced a 16.7 PER and accumulated 7.2 win shares, a career high at that point. After an up and down career in New York (who drafted him), it was nice to see Gallinari shining and being a crucial cog in the Nuggets’ offense and Karl’s system.

But, Gallo got hurt, the Nuggets got bounced in the first round, Karl was showed the door, Shaw came in…and you know the rest. When Gallinari did return, all was pretty much lost, as the Nuggets were a non-factor in the playoff race seemingly from January-on. But, as pointed out in Lowe’s piece, Gallo was one of the Nuggets best players after the All-Star break, as he averaged 18.6 ppg and 4.8 rpg on 31.2 mpg in 24 contests down the stretch. He also seemed to show signs of his old shooting prowess from 2012-2013, as he shot 40.3 percent beyond the arc on 31 more 3-pt attempts from the first half in the 24-game span, and averaged 1.19 PPP (a .16 point improvement from the first half). There were not a lot of bright spots for the Nuggets in the second-half with the firing of Shaw, the troubles of Lawson, and the mixed feelings for Kenneth Faried, whose legacy changes all the time it seems in Denver (more on this later). But Gallo’s return to form was a glimmer of hope for a fanbase that has been used to disappointment, especially as of late.

The big question now though is if the 24-game sample of Gallo will translate over a full year. Is he really back to that 2012-2013 form or better? Or was that post-All Star break performance a flash in the pan? One sign that he might be closer to the former was his recent performance this September in international play. Gallo was a force for an Italian squad that finished 6th in the recent Eurobasket, as he led the team in scoring with 17.9 ppg and also showed a boost in some other categories as he averaged 6.9 rpg and 2.8 apg during the 8-game span. Additionally, he also shot 56 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3, thus demonstrating Gallo’s hot touch from the end of the year has carried over to FIBA play. Of course, FIBA numbers should always taken with a grain of salt, especially considering this was solely against European competition (i.e. no USA). But, if Gallo can be the lead dog on a team with NBA players such as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani and Gigi Datome, it makes you think he could also serve such a role on a Nuggets team that is going to be much younger than in years past.

Will Malone lean on Gallinari early, especially as youngsters such as rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and second-year center Jusuf Nurkic continue to grow into their games? It’ll be interesting to see, that’s for sure. Malone at the core is a defensive guy, and Gallinari has never proven to be better than an average defender (and that is saying it kindly). And Gallinari struggles with the more physical parts of the game, and though he showed more physicality in the Eurobasket than usual, he will struggle against bigger power forwards if Malone should go small and put him at the four. Gallinari has never had a rebounding percentage in the double digits, and even for a small-ball four that is not a promising sign, especially considering playing Gallinari at the four means benching Faried or Nurkic, who are solid rebounding bigs.

How Malone will utilize Gallo will be a strong indicator to the Nuggets’ success. Will Malone make him a focal point of the offense? Can he help him improve his defense? Can he motivate him to show that 24-game self over the full course of the season? If Malone can do that, the Nuggets could be getting better quicker than expected.

Reaching Kenneth Faried

The Nuggets need a focused and committed Faried in 2015-2106

Faried has been a hot and cold player for the Nuggets. He went under-drafted in the 2011 draft, going 22nd and being thought as a “good small-college player who would be exposed by bigger posts” in the NBA. Faried though has proven the critics wrong somewhat, as he has averaged nearly a double-double over his career so far (12.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg over  281 games). That is not bad for a guy many thought would be out of the league in a few years (as is typical for late-round picks).

But, while his hustle and fan-favorite style (gotta love the “Manimal” nickname) has boded well in his favor, his albatross contract and prickly personality has made him a pariah of sorts in the Nuggets locker room. This interesting quote below came out about Faried in this ESPN piece by Kevin Arnovitz last November:

“[Faried] is a helluva player and plays hard, but he isn’t well liked [in the organization],” a league source said. “That gets glossed over. He says crazy s—. He thinks he’s the guy, and other guys take exception to his contract.”

Not exactly glowing praise for a guy thought to be a key piece for the Nuggets going forward.

But, Malone has been in this boat before. Cousins was widely known as a volatile sort that many felt would be un-coachable when he came into the league, and early on in his career, he proved them right. He struggled to get along with Paul Westphal. (But then again, who doesn’t? Has any player of his ever come out and said “God, I loved playing for Paul Westphal! He was the best!” Phoenix, Seattle and Pepperdine players…you can email me anytime). He struggled with Kenny Natt and Keith Smart. For a while, it looked like Cousins was destined to being a great player on a bad team who just couldn’t get out of his own way, in the Rasheed Wallace or Zach Randolph mold (both whom I love by the way).

And then Malone came in. Malone got him to give more commitment to defense. He helped channel Cousins emotions a bit better. And let’s face it. Who knows if Boogie becomes a third-team All-NBA player and an All-Star if not for Malone’s tutelage. Time and time again when asked, Boogie always has good things to say about Malone, something not a lot of past or even present Kings coaches can boast.

The Faried situation is not easy, especially on a roster filled with young players and under-whelming veterans like JJ Hickson and Randy Foye. Faried will be relied upon for leadership in some way, and it makes you wonder when you see articles like the one from Arnovitz if Faried is up for the challenged considering his ego issues. However, this is not new turf for Malone, and it is a safe bet that Malone is banking on mending Faried’s image similar to how he mended Cousins’ in Sacramento for the benefit of Faried as well as the team in general. This team is not deep talent-wise and they need a focused Faried if they want an outside chance at a playoff berth.

Focus on youth, especially Mudiay and Nurkic

Lawson is now a Rocket, which means that the Nuggets’ future at the point is rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, whom the Nuggets got at No.7 in this recent draft. Considering that Mudiay was considered a No. 1 pick a year ago before he went back on his commitment to SMU and played in China instead, I think the Nuggets got a steal. Mudiay, a big point guard at 6-feet 5-inches, has all the intangibles that made Elfrid Payton such a hot commodity in the draft years ago, but has a bit more offensive upside than Payton. He average 18 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.9 apg in 12 games with the Guangdong Tigers last year, and he also showed some flashes of brilliance in Summer League as well. Also, in his prospect profile, Aran Smith of NBADraft.net said this about Mudiay:

“An elite level PG with the dynamic talent to be in the category of PGs such as Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard. He has a terrific feel for the game, and will just need to learn to become more composed with his decision making and shot selection.”

You can see now why the last DUI was the final straw for Lawson in Denver. If Mudiay can develop as scouts project, they could have a franchise-cornerstone at point guard for years to come. It’ll be interesting to see if Malone will give the keys to the offense right away though, or if he will have incumbent backup Jameer Nelson take over the starting role to allow Mudiay to get more comfortable and keep too much pressure off of his young guard right away. That being said, Mudiay is the future, and Malone has leaned on his young guys before (he was liberal at times with giving Ray McCallum minutes at point in Sacramento), so it won’t be surprising if Mudiay becomes “the man” at point sooner rather than later in Denver.

Mudiay isn’t the only young budding star that Malone needs to pay attention to though. The “Bosnian Beast” Nurkic was a key reason the Nuggets decided to part ways with Timofey Mozgov, who ended up having a bit of a coming out party against the Warriors in the Finals. Nurkic gained mainstream popularity for his physical play and his fearlessness, as he seemed willing to stand up to any and everybody, including the volatile and intimidating Cousins. However, though Nurkic had a strong stretch December-February (hence, the Nuggets finding Mozgov expendable), he struggled through injuries, as he only played 26 games in the last 3 months and saw his minutes decline from 24.5 mpg in February to 17.2 mpg in March and 16.8 mpg in April. The decline in minutes also resulted in a decline in efficiency, as his offensive PPP went from 1.04 in February to 0.87 and 0.90 in March and April, respectively.

Whether the decline the past couple of months was due to injury or fatigue or the league scouting him better, Malone and the Nuggets will need some kind of progression from Nurkic in year 2. On the positive side, he is hell of a rebounder, as he led the team in rebounding rate at 18.7, which was 1.4 percent better than Faried, who is widely known for his rebounding (sometimes selfishly so…it has been said he goes after rebounds to pad his stats at times, especially on defense). Also, Nurkic was one of the Nuggets’ most effective defensive players last year, as he was second in defensive win shares at 1.8 and led the team in defensive box plus-minus by a considerable amount (his 3.1 was 2.2 better than the second-leading regular, Faried). At the very least, the “Bosnian Bear” will have a future as an animal on the glass and defensive end.

The main question concerning Nurkic will be how his offensive game progresses, and a lot of that will ride on Malone. Nurkic only posted a 14.8 PER and 48.3 true shooting percentage, both lackluster numbers for a post player (as evidenced by his negative-.02 offensive win shares). One area that needs considerable improvement or change his 3-10 feet game (i.e. the floater/short mid-range). Nurkic took 40.2 percent of his total shots from that range, and he only converted 31.2 percent of those shots. For a big guy that is six-feet, 11-inches and 280 pounds, he should be getting to the rack more, as he converted 58.2 percent of shots 0-3 feet (i.e. dunks/layups), but only got that shot 48 percent of the time. Maybe in time, Nurkic’s short range game will get better. But for now, the Nuggets and Malone need to make a concerned effort to get him touches in areas where he can finish at a high rate. If that happens, Nurkic will start to be known around the league for being one of the better big men in the game and not just one of the better trash talkers (though I’m not complaining about the latter).

Can the Milwaukee Bucks Win the East Next Year?

The Bucks’ uniforms got better (love the blue!), but will their record improve? Flannel, PBR and PER likes to think so…

The NBA season is still months away. In fact, we aren’t really done with free agency just yet this summer (some players are still yet to be signed). However, despite the distance from the start of the NBA season, it is never too early to talk about next season and what teams will be making an impact and dominate the headlines in 2015-2016.

A select number of teams have been dominating the headlines this July, in good ways (San Antonio Spurs), bad ways (Sacramento Kings) and good/bad/hilarious/emoji ways (Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks and DeAndre Jordan). However, one team that has gone under the radar has been the Milwaukee Bucks this off-season. Of course, it makes sense that they haven’t dominated the “big off-season” discussions in major media circles. They didn’t sign any “big” names, and haven’t really been involved in any July drama with players, though the team’s arena issues did put a fright in many Bucks fans who were afraid they would see their team leave to Seattle (the NBA’s eternal bargaining chip). Now that it is certain that the Bucks are going to be in Milwaukee next season and beyond, the focus can be what they did in improving their roster and how they set themselves up for next season.

And let me just say this: the Bucks are going to be good…and not just good like 5-8 seed in the East good, like last season. The Bucks next year may be a serious threat to the heavy East favorite Cavs, and that is saying something considering how the Cavs will most likely improve with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (and committed Love after re-signing to a 5-year extension this off-season) and the Hawks still return mostly everybody from their squad a season ago (minus DeMarre Carroll).

So why are the Bucks a dark horse in the East? How can they potentially dethrone King James and his merry men of Cavaliers? Let’s take a look at three reasons why the Bucks should be taken seriously next season and could greatly surpass their 41-41 record from a year ago.

Reason #1: Greg Monroe is a huge upgrade for the Bucks in the post.

Monroe’s stock wasn’t as high as many initially thought when he entered this summer as an unrestricted free agent, but that isn’t to say he isn’t one of the more productive post players in the league. Despite playing 13 fewer games from a year ago (69 last year), and struggling to find a role with the crowded Pistons front court in the beginning of the year (with Josh Smith and Andre Drummond garnering minutes; though Smith was waived early, which freed up playing time for Monroe), Monroe posted improvements in PER (18.8 to 21.2), win shares (5.9 to 6.8), points per 100 possessions (26.6 was a career high in that category) and true shooting percentage (53.1 to 54.9 percent). Though Monroe certainly wasn’t an indispensable part of the Pistons’ future (Drummond is the younger, more valued commodity, and coach Stan Van Gundy prefers stretch 4’s over traditional posts, so the writing was on the wall for Monroe in Detroit), Monroe was a big reason in the Pistons’ surge mid-way through the season that nearly result in a playoff berth for them despite a 3-15 start. With his strong ability to score and adept passing ability for a big man, it was not surprising that the 25-year-old from Georgetown garnered heavy interest from the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks this summer.

But, instead of being in the Big Apple or Tinseltown, Monroe finds himself in the Cheese Capital of the USA thanks to a three-year $50 million deal from the Bucks, an aggressive and unexpected move from a small-market franchise that ranked 29th in attendance in 2014-2015. The deal appears to be a considerable upgrade over what the Bucks trotted out there in the center position last season. Larry Sanders went AWOL a quarter of the season in, and while Zaza Pachulia was a fan favorite (and noted public speaker mind you) and John Henson has been an underrated young talent, they have not and will not match the production that Monroe will generate as Milwaukee’s go-to center next season. In fact, let’s compare the career advanced numbers for all four players:

Rk Player G PER TS% FTr ORB% DRB% AST% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS VORP
1 John Henson 200 18.0 .541 .317 11.6 20.5 9.0 6.1 14.1 20.1 3.6 5.1 8.7 2.3
2 Greg Monroe 378 19.7 .545 .376 11.3 22.8 12.6 1.5 13.8 21.9 19.3 12.8 32.2 12.3
3 Zaza Pachulia 815 14.2 .533 .534 12.2 19.4 9.0 1.3 17.2 17.3 17.5 18.8 36.3 5.2
4 Larry Sanders 233 15.5 .494 .235 11.0 21.4 6.0 7.1 12.6 17.0 1.8 8.5 10.3 3.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2015.

It is obvious Monroe has been the best and will be the best offensive player of the bunch going forward in Milwaukee. He bests all the other four in nearly every scoring category, and he also demonstrates excellent efficiency (career 19.4 PER) and ability to generate offense off his passing prowess (career 12.6 assist rate). Pachulia has been the better offensive rebounder, and Sanders appears to be the better defensive player (7.1 career block rate) and Henson is the young “upside” pick (second-highest PER of the four). But, Monroe is head and shoulders above the other 3, as evident by his 12.3 VORP (value over replacement player). Bucks fans should be excited about the options Monroe will give this Bucks team, especially with his passing ability in the post, which should open up the offense for athletic forwards such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (who is coming off injury though).

A lot has been made about whether or not Monroe will fit in with Milwaukee’s hyper-aggressive, switching defensive scheme (as chronicled in this Zach Lowe piece). In a changing league that is starting to utilize more “small” posts to promote nightmare matchups offensively and defensively, Monroe leaves a lot to be desired in the latter end. His athleticism is average to below for a big, and he has never been categorized as a shot blocker at any point in his career (in fact, his lack of athleticism and lackluster shot blocking ability was a big reason why he slid to the Pistons at No. 7; the Kings drafted Demarcus Cousins at 5, wisely; the Warriors drafted Ekpe Udoh at 6, not so wisely). It’ll be interesting to see how Kidd will utilize him within the defensive scheme that carried the Bucks to such radical success a year ago (remember, the Bucks were one of the worst teams in the league two seasons ago), and if Monroe will be a fit, or if he’ll be subbed in key moments with someone more athletic to mesh better with what Kidd and the Bucks do best defensively.

Defensive issues aside though, it is a clear that Monroe will help the Bucks improve upon their .500 record a season ago. Monroe is the most productive and talented center to arrive in Milwaukee in quite some time (Ervin Johnson he is not) and he gives the Kidd and the Bucks the kind of offensive flexibility they haven’t had since the Karl days. Furthermore, his presence will give the Bucks a major weapon to compete against the best bigs from the best teams in the East such as Chicago (Gasol, Noah and Mirotic), Cleveland (Mozgov and Thompson), Washington (Gortat and Nene), and Atlanta (Millsap and Horford).

Reason #2: Head Coach Jason Kidd could be even better in year two

It is hard to imagine now how much Kidd has progressed as a NBA head coach, especially considering two seasons ago, it looked like his hire was a colossal mistake in Brooklyn. The Nets, coming off the major acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, were 5-12 by the end of November, and Kidd was widely ridiculed in the media as “unprofessional” and a “hack” for this incident below:

Since then though Kidd has done few things wrong. He led the Nets to a 44-38 finish and a first round victory over the higher-seed Toronto Raptors (including a Game 7 win in Toronto). Last year, despite taking over a team that went 15-67 the year before, and with little established, veteran talent, he coached the Bucks to a 41-41 record and pushed the Bulls (who looked like the second-best team in the East in the playoffs) to six games (they won 2 emotional games after giving up the first 3 in the series). “Sodagate” aside, this is certain: Kidd can coach.

That being said, year two remains a bit of a mystery to Kidd and Bucks fans. Kidd has only coached for two seasons, and this is the first time he has had a full off-season with his current team. While there is expected to be some growing pains and some adjustments other teams will make to what Kidd likes to do offensively and defensively as a coach, it goes without saying that there will be a lot of improvement from Kidd as a coach with this roster in year two. Kidd has done an extraordinary job reaching his young talent, while also getting the most out of his under-the-radar veterans. Jerryd Bayless and OJ Mayo were big-time contributors for the young Bucks last season, even though they had been widely maligned throughout their careers for inconsistent play. Kidd excels as a player’s coach, while also doing a good job of communicating what he expects from his players on the court, which is more characteristic of a “coach’s coach” in the mold of a Tom Thibodeau, for example. That puts Kidd in a rare class, and it is enticing what he can do going forward with this organization.

The biggest challenge and judge of him as a coach though centers on how Michael Carter Williams develops, whom they acquired in a 3-way trade with Philadelphia and Phoenix that involved them shipping Brandon Knight, who was on the cusp of making the All- Star team a year ago. Carter Williams, though the Rookie of the Year a couple of seasons ago, has been categorized as an “efficiency-killer” who gains gaudy per game numbers while doing it inefficiently (his career offensive rating is 94, which means 9.4 points per 100 possession; average is 10) and on losing teams. Kidd has voiced his confidence and faith in Carter-Williams and his future with the Bucks in the past, making the improvement and revitalization of MCW’s career somewhat of a side project for the 3rd year coach. After all, no one is questioning MCW’s ability: at six-feet, six-inches, he remains a nightmare matchup for the league’s point guards, and there is hope that MCW will turn into what Shaun Livingston would have had Livingston not suffered that grotesque leg injury with the Clippers early in his career. But, it will be interesting to see if Kidd, who also struggled with his shooting early in his career much like MCW, has the coaching chops to turn around MCW’s struggles and develop him into a Kidd 2.0.

If that, or some progress on that side mission, can happen next year, not only will MCW revitalize his career, but Kidd will have proven that he is one of the top “coaches” in the game and the Bucks will be serious threats to Cleveland’s hold in the Eastern Conference. Pay attention next year to MCW’s development. With a full off-season under Kidd, I can’t help but think there will be improvement in MCW’s game and thus, the Bucks’ play in 2105-2016.

Reason #3: The Bucks will have underrated depth on their roster.

The signing of Monroe not only improved their starting five, but also their bench immensely. In terms of the front court depth, John Henson, as displayed in the table above, is an underrated big who is an efficient scorer and rebounder, and has outperformed expectations when he first came into the league. Miles Plumlee, with Ersan Ilyasova now a Piston, will give the Bucks valuable minutes in the post, and is the kind of “dirty work” player that will help the Bucks compete against some of the “tougher” squads in the East. Even Johnny O’Bryant, an end of the bench player who offers “stretch 4” skills, could greatly improve in his second year in the league and give the Bucks an added boost when needed.

Furthermore, the backcourt depth for the Bucks will be really impressive and should help make “Fear the Deer” a phrase worth repeating on multiple occasions next season. The Bucks added Greivis Vasquez this off-season, a tall point guard in the MCW mold who can push the tempo and generate instant offense off the bench. He excelled in that role in Memphis and Toronto, and though he is prone to inconsistency, he is the kind of dynamic player that will maintain the offense when MCW is off the floor. Also, the return of Bayless will also be a boost to the backcourt, as he is a similar kind of player to Vasquez. Though he doesn’t have the height of Vasquez, he can find ways to create offense, and isn’t afraid of the big moment, as evidenced in the video below:

The Bucks will also return Mayo, who has to prove he can have more seasons like last year in Milwaukee rather than the lackluster year before, as well as second-year guard Tyler Ennis, who came from Phoenix in the Knight-MCW trade and looks to be a project of sorts (He seems destined for more D-League time next year). However, one of the more overlooked options on the bench next season could be Jorge Gutierrez, who signed a multi-year deal at the end of the season with the Bucks after succeeding on multiple 10-day-contracts. Gutierrez has been a D-League stud, as he has a career per 36 average of 13.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.8 rebounds per game. Gutierrez also offers a lot of defensive upside, as he is a tough, gritty defender who can match up well with opposing wings as well as points. Should anything happen to Vasquez or Bayless, don’t be surprised to see Gutierrez breakout and become a star in the mold of Matthew Dellevadova in 2015-2016.

The Bucks will have a great starting lineup with MCW, Khris Middleton, Giannis, Jabari Parker (when healthy), and Monroe. But the Bucks’ options off the bench and the underrated talent that they have stacked up last year and this off-season will help them go from fringe to possibly a serious contender next year.

Final Analysis on the Bucks

The race for the Eastern Conference crown will be more of a dogfight than in years past. Cleveland will most likely improve in LeBron James Era 2.0 year 2, especially with Kevin Love back and committed for the long haul. Boston is another young team that will improve under their excellent coach, Brad Stevens, and Chicago could turn the corner now that they have a coach (Fred Hoiberg) who is more in touch with the modern game (i.e. better at offense) than his predecessor (Thibs). And Atlanta remains an interesting team as well, especially considering they returned everyone but Carroll, and declared coach Mike Budenholzer as in charge of basketball operations as well. They were still the no.1 team after the regular season, and they still will provide a challenge to the rest of the Eastern Conference, as well as the league in general.

But, the Bucks did so much this off-season with the signing of Monroe and the re-signing of Middleton. Add that with more depth on their bench, and the possibility of Kidd improving as a coach in year 2 with the Bucks organization, and Milwaukee’s hopes next year look scary good. There without a doubt will be improvement from the Bucks next year. They will not be just a .500 team next year. However, how much they improve is the real question. Will things come together and will Milwaukee take the next step to being the “team to beat LeBron” in the East? Or will they fall in that “contender, but not really” pack with Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto and Washington?

Whatever happens in 2015-2016 for the official basketball team of the Cheese State, this is for sure: the Bucks will be required League Pass viewing for NBA fans across the nation (myself and FPP included).