Essay: First Annual Shaky Ankles NBA Preview!
Going online to devour the dozens of NBA Season Previews created each year is one of my all-time favorite annual activities. I don’t care who writes them or where they’re written, whether it’s questioning obnoxious choices, applauding the bold, or scrolling through an obvious unanimous decision, the entire anticipatory process, to me, qualifies as tantalizing entertainment. Also, watching writers from national publications put their reputations on the line (a little strong, but still, nobody wants to have “Coach of the Year: Vinny Del Negro” staring them down for the rest of their career) by trying to tell the future is always a good time. Without further ado, I bring you the First Annual Shaky Ankles NBA Season Preview.
All-NBA First Team: G-Chris Paul, G-Dwyane Wade, F-LeBron James, F-Kevin Durant, C-Dwight Howard. These are the five best players in basketball.
All-NBA Second Team: G-Derrick Rose, G-Russell Westbrook, F-Dirk Nowitzki, F-Blake Griffin, C-Pau Gasol. (Not a center? Screw it. He’s better, and taller, than most of them anyway.) Pretty straight forward ruling here. For those who question the Westbrook over Kobe placement, my apologies, but Westbrook will have a better year and it won’t be close.
All-NBA Third Team: G-Rajon Rondo, G-Kobe Bryant, F-Carmelo Anthony, F-Kevin Love, C-Joakim Noah. Pretty straight forward group here. Rondo will lead the league in assists, Love will do the same with rebounds, Kobe gets his lifetime achievement placing, Carmelo averages 28 points a night on one of the league’s top five scrutinized teams, and a healthy Joakim Noah averages a double-double while serving as crucial lynch pin to the league’s best defense.
All-Defense Team (Singular):
Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard. The five best defenders in the NBA.
Traditional Individual Awards:
MVP: LeBron James. For me, on most occasions, the NBA’s MVP should be given to the world’s best player. Unless LeBron repeats what he did in the 2011 Finals this year, that title goes to him.
Most Improved Player: DeAndre Jordan. It’d be a little strange to see a player receive his first bloated contract BEFORE winning a major award, but here we are. Jordan has many weaknesses (most notably man to man defense in the post and free-throw shooting), but his presence as a shot blocker and near dominant offensive player when within three feet of the hoop, will only get more recognition playing alongside Chris Paul—one of the best who’s ever played at getting the most from those around him.
Rookie of the Year: Kemba Walker. So, who else can score on this team? That’s what I thought. Walker will lead the least exciting rookie class of my lifetime in points per game.
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden. I reluctantly place James Harden here for the simple reason that he could start more games than not, making him ineligible for the award. This might not be nice to say, but Harden is “above” it. Where we stand before the season starts, he’s the third most valuable player on a team almost everyone believes will win the Western Conference, and so by traditional metrics, a bench player he is not. A talent of his consistent skill level usually isn’t in Sixth Man of the Year territory, but if he remains off the bench, well, he’d be the most impactful player there.
Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman. Minnesota will improve for a few reasons, and right behind Ricky Rubio’s celebritant, Adelman replacing Kurt Rambis and uprooting his triangle offense is the most significant cause.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard. The sky is blue, cold showers are for psychotics, and everyone likes pizza. Some things you just don’t question.
Made Up Categorical Predictions:
Two Breakouts to Freak About: Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday. At the end of Philadelphia’s second preseason game, the Sixers held a slight lead in what had turned into a hideous back and forth battle between one of the worst teams in basketball and a young feisty bunch that seemed to have their eyes set on the future. Holiday—a point guard with high expectations to fill that role in Philly for the next half decade—took a screen beyond the three-point line, dribbled once to his right, watched his man (Shelvin Mack) go under the pick, and launched a wide open shot. The contextual confidence Holiday had in making the right decision, let alone the clinching three pointer, shows he’s ready to leap forward. The way Doug Collins let him run the offense last season should only serve as a much needed educational experience, and this year, with a focus on higher goals than simply making the postseason, Holiday will become the type of player Philadelphia’s been looking for since Allen Iverson’s departure.
Derrick Favors is an absolute monster. Please, don’t let the trade for Deron Williams confuse you into thinking his projected value as a former No. 3 overall pick wasn’t high, because it was. It is. Favors’ offensive game is overpowering, and his motor and focus seem to be at the highest levels yet. By season’s end, Favors will be Utah’s best player, and I say that with no belief the Jazz are able to find any takers on Al Jefferson’s contract.
Transcendentally Sexy Glue Guy: Arron Afflalo. Glue Guys are referred to as such because they do everything at an average to above average level. Searching for glaring weaknesses in their game is pointless. , and can fit in with any team they’re plopped on. Arron Afflalo is a consummate glue guy, and this offseason he was paid the type of money crucial scorers get. Afflalo’s contract could be remembered as the one that changes the way glue guys are both paid and understood around the league.
Most Disappointing Player: Tyson Chandler. A few days ago I wrote about the ironic risk New York took in filling their biggest void with the market’s best available option, and I stand by it. His first year in New York will be his 11th in the league. Of the first 10, Chandler has started the following amount of games, in order from his rookie season to last year in Dallas: 31, 68, 8, 10, 50, 73, 79, 45, 27, and 74. That isn’t exactly consistent. His offensive abilities are non-existent, and for a majority of the season he will have no point guard to make them look pretty. Chandler’s defense is good, but in the wake of a championship ring, it may have been slightly overrated. Turning “a culture around” with veteran players who could already play defense and were willing to buy in to a team concept was do-able. But coming to New York, with no Shawn Marion on the perimeter and no selfless Jason Kidd taking on the opposition’s best player, Chandler, and to a greater extent every basketball fan in New York, could be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Most Underrated Free Agent Acquisition: Richard Hamilton. Maybe it was because this made too much sense and was rumored to happen for what feels like the last six years, but for whatever reason nobody is talking about Richard Hamilton’s displacement of Keith Bogans. The one thing Chicago needed to address this offseason was a starting shooting guard who Tom Thibodeau could design plays for. The offense proved stagnant in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and adding one more option for opposing defenses to worry about appeared to be the championship answer. Hamilton is old, and last season he posted the worst scoring numbers since his rookie year, but a new city and new team, with a new nucleus and higher purpose, should rejuvenate him into doing what it is the Bulls need him to do. Run around screens, wear out opposing defenders, and make mid-range jumpers. If he’s open for one or two three-pointers a game (five years ago he led the league in 3PT%, but only attempted 1.5 per game) then by all means he should take them, but as we’ve seen throughout his career, Hamilton isn’t a three-point shooter.
Really Cool Straight Up Trade That Would Shake Up The Playing Field and Make the NBA Even More Exciting Than It Was Before: Tyreke Evans for Ray Allen. This would do amazing things for both sides. Let’s start with Sacramento. They’d be acquiring one of the greatest shooting guards to ever play, allowing his unrealistic work ethic to seep into the fibers of their future backcourt (Jimmer and Marcus Thornton). In letting go of Evans, they’d be opening up future playing time, as well as salary space (Evans is tied up until 2013-14, when he will become a restricted free agent with a measly $6.9 million return. His price tag then could soar to the $12-14 million a year range, which is something a parsimonious Sacramento ownership group might be unwilling to pay.) Meanwhile, Ray Allen is a free agent next season.
Is Evans a franchise point guard? Maybe, but more likely he’s playing out of position in a losing situation. If his athletic ability to enter the paint and get points at will is placed in Boston—with Rajon Rondo running the point, and an elder Paul Pierce transitioning himself to secondary scoring option—the Celtics notoriously stagnant offense would transform itself into the game’s most dangerous backcourt. Admittedly, a duo of Rondo and Evans would be experimental, but the payoff is well worth the risk for a team about to plummet off a mountain’s edge.
Division Winners (followed by the most fun team to watch):
Atlantic: Boston (New York)
Central: Chicago (Indiana)
Southeast: Miami (Washington…or, yea, also Miami)
Southwest: Memphis (Dallas)
Northwest: Oklahoma City (Minnesota)
Pacific: LA Clippers (That’d again be the Clippers)
Western Conference Standings:
1) Oklahoma City. Coming so close to an NBA Finals berth last season before falling to the eventual champions in Dallas, it’d be tough to take anyone else. The Thunder have two of the 10 best players in basketball, a defensive minded frontline, a bench that fits into their roles, continuity, and youth. If Westbrook fully realizes his wizardry for good over evil, come playoff time they’ll be a very difficult team to beat.
2) Memphis Grizzlies. A little high, maybe. Darrell Arthur will miss the season with a devastating achilles injury. But they reacted impressively, signing Dante Cunningham from Charlotte to slide into Arthur’s role. When Memphis replaces Arthur with Cunningham it won’t make headlines, but it could be the difference in whether or not the Grizzlies are able to build on last year’s impressive playoff run.
3) Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers might be my team away from home; I love everything they’re doing, including the uptempo offensive style they’ve shown in two preseason games. They have two legitimate MVP candidates (only one other team can say that, and they’re everyone’s pick to win the title), the most athletic center/power forward combination in the league, and championship experience a la Chauncey Billups. They’re the best basketball team in southern California.
4) San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs might be listed a position or two too high. The remaining teams could end the season sardined beside one another, so seeding won’t prove to be a great indicator as to who’s better than who, but I placed San Antonio here because of two reasons: healthy Duncan, and intriguing Leonard.
5) Dallas Mavericks. Still not fathoming how they acquired Lamar Odom. With it and a few other smart, cap friendly signings, the Mavericks remain title contenders even after losing Chandler and Barea. Also, this is the last season Roddy Beaubois has to show he can be a consistent impact player. If he does, Jason Kidd’s legs can strictly be used for dead-eye three-point shooting. But the losses of Stevenson and Stojakovic compacting the floor spacing Rick Carlisle so desperately covets, the offense could see a significant drop off in the playoffs.
6) Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have a banged up and declining Kobe Bryant, an emotionally scarred Pau Gasol, and the biggest question mark in basketball (Andrew Bynum) as their three best players. The point guard position belongs in a crappy retirement home rec league, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy are actually being asked to contribute, and Metta World Piece is filling Lamar Odom’s shoes. Very troubling.
7) Denver Nuggets I like the Nuggets, but they’re being put down here because of their “too underrated, now they’re overrated” stigma. Hollinger stamped them as the second best team in the west, and despite pulling an anti-Dallas Mavericks by locking up all their key free agents, I don’t think they’re a better team than the six listed above.
8) Portland Trailblazers. Nobody enjoys being the focus of a pity party, and Portland is the NBA’s. But the acquisition of Jamal Crawford, the continued improvement of All-Star candidate LaMarcus Aldridge, solid coaching, and a legitimate “us against the world” mentality should be enough to drag them into the playoffs. They’ve also upgraded at point guard, and we could (hopefully) see a more up tempo offense with it.
Western Conference Playoffs:
1) Oklahoma City Thunder def. 8) Portland Trailblazers
2) Memphis Grizzlies def. 7) Denver Nuggets
3) Los Angeles Clippers def. 6) Los Angeles Lakers
5) Dallas Mavericks def. 4) San Antonio Spurs
1) Oklahoma City Thunder def. 5) Dallas Mavericks
3) Los Angeles Clippers def. 2) Memphis Grizzlies
3) Los Angeles Clippers def. 1) Oklahoma City Thunder
1) Miami Heat. The odds on favorite, but no team in league history has had more pressure on them to win a championship than the Heat in 2012. Can’t imagine the weight of those expectations being merry.
2) Chicago Bulls. Will history remember Derrick Rose’s Bulls as a great team that was unfortunate enough to have a Miami Heat juggernaut continuously blocking their path to a championship? Or do they stop it before anything’s able to happen?
3) Boston Celtics. Unless their veteran bench guys put together career years, their young bench guys evolve quicker than humanly possible, someone like JR Smith or Mickael Pietrus is willing to play for the minimum, and everyone remains healthy for a playoff run, the Celtics probably won’t win a championship.
4) Indiana Pacers. Quite possibly the most admirable roster in the league (and an Eastern Conference version of Denver), the Pacers’ team building strategy right now is a little outside the box, but in a smart way. They have two former All-Stars who’re still above average at their positions (Granger/West), a REALLY tall center who’s playing in his contract year, and overall, a roster filled with defensive-minded, selfless athletes who don’t care about minutes, and don’t study their stats.
5) New York Knicks. Not the Big 3 Knicks fans were dreaming of, but not too shabby a crew either. I’m not sure Tyson Chandler equals his impact in Dallas now that the expectations are multiplied by 372, but there’s no question he’s an upgrade at the position. The backcourt is another story, and having your season depend on Baron Davis has yet to turn out well for any professional basketball teams.
6) Orlando Magic. I don’t think Dwight Howard gets traded until after the All-Star break, mostly because if he were, the city of Orlando would explode with jealous fury upon his return. Even with him this team isn’t a title contender, but they aren’t destined for a lottery pick either.
7) Philadelphia 76ers. Banking on their young athletes to become something more isn’t a terrible strategy. The emergence of Jrue Holiday, a resigned Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner’s determination to crack the starting lineup, and a more versatile Jodie Meeks, will make Philly a slightly better basketball team than they were a year ago. But what they still lack is a player talented enough to lead them through the first round.
8) Milwaukee Bucks. One of two teams (Clippers being the other) who didn’t make the playoffs last season but will this year, Milwaukee will have a 100% healthy Andrew Bogut serving as anchor to an already stout defense. They also did a sneaky good job of matching Denver’s offer for restricted agent Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, one of the league’s most unappreciated rotation players.
1) Miami Heat def. 8) Milwaukee Bucks
2) Chicago Bulls def. 7) Philadelphia 76ers
3) Boston Celtics def. 6) Orlando Magic
4) Indiana Pacers def. 5) New York Knicks
1) Miami Heat def. 4) Indiana Pacers
2) Chicago Bulls def. 3) Boston Celtics
1) Miami Heat def. 2) Chicago Bulls
Los Angeles Clippers def. Miami Heat in 7 games.
Both teams have amazing strengths that significantly outweigh their subsidiary weaknesses. In this absolute dream of a series, those strengths seamlessly clash against each other’s weaknesses in what would promise to be an all-time strategic classic.
Los Angeles’ strengths: Best point guard in basketball, veteran backcourt with dependable three-point shooters, and the most athletic, physically imposing power forward/center duo in the league.
Miami’s weaknesses: Little front court skill, no front court depth, and an embarrassingly thin point guard tandem.
Los Angeles’ weaknesses: Huge drop off with the big men when venturing to the bench, no recognizable defenders on the perimeter.
Miami’s strengths: Where to begin? An unprecedented Dwyane Wade/LeBron James duo that’s made them the odds on favorite to win it all, and a potentially all-time great team defense highlighted by supreme athletes on the perimeter are probably the two standout positives.
So, on L.A. we have a great point guard matched up against Miami’s not so great point guard (although the Heat could place either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James on CP3 as they did with Derrick Rose in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals), and a starting front court that will make Chris Bosh and whoever’s player center cower. But the Clippers have no way to stop LeBron and Wade on defense. Caron Butler and Ryan Gomes could bring themselves to task, but they’d probably come up short. And if DeAndre Jordan picks up two fouls in the game’s first three minutes—which qualifies as one of his all-time favorite things to do—then the Clippers would pretty much be screwed with basket protection. Then again, he might not. Both teams will run through the regular season with a philosophy of high octane offense. Attack, attack, attack. But in the Finals, when each possession is regarded as the last glass of water on a resource-less planet Earth, things will slow down to the half court. And when that happens, I’ll take Chris Paul over anyone else.
God, this series would be amazing.