Essay: Second Annual Shaky Ankles NBA Preview!
Predicting the results for an upcoming NBA season, and then blogging about them, can be both pointless and embarrassing. Despite it also being super fun, I’m switching up the normal “Shaky Ankles NBA Preview” style by leaning less on fortune telling and more towards things I’m expecting to excite/intrigue/depress me throughout the next eight months of watching basketball.
Over the past couple weeks I’ve subliminally let my thoughts on MVP and Rookie of the Year known, and since the other major awards that matter are boring and predictable (Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard/Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden/Most Improved Player: Darko Milicic) I’ve decided to go a different route.
Things That Intrigue/Excite/Depress Me.
The possible ascension of Kawhi Leonard
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is known as a man who doesn’t speak just to hear his own voice. When he says something—especially about the game of basketball—everyone listens, many take notes. At the end of August, Popovich made a semi-shocking comment about Kawhi Leonard, a 21-year-old Spur who appeared to thrive within San Antonio’s system all the way up to his very first Western Conference Finals. Here it is:
I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.
The obvious take away here is that Kawhi Leonard is very good at basketball, and from watching his rookie season unfold, it’s an assessment that’s difficult to argue. But anointing someone with 39 games under his belt the face of a franchise? It’s interesting.
Of course, this could just be forward-thinking spin. Everybody remember George Hill? The former Spurs point guard who Pop once deemed his “favorite” player? Well, that guy just signed a bloated contract in Indiana that pays him $40 million over the next five years. The Spurs saw that one coming and wanted no part of it, so they dealt Hill for Leonard and kept things humming at a much cheaper price.
I’m not saying Popovich said what he said to perk the ears of rival general managers, but I’m not saying I’m not saying that either. Kawhi Leonard has the physical attributes to someday soon become one of the league’s most devastating perimeter defenders (an ever-growing commodity), and on offense he’s already shown an ability to score the basketball in a variety of ways. We (or at least I) remember Leonard as a spot up corner three ball shooter last season, but in fact only 27% of his attempted field goals came from behind the line (as opposed to 44.2% for Manu Ginobili). Also, a little over half of his baskets came in the paint, which is awesome for a rookie, and making things ever better, 46.8% of all his two-point field goals were unassisted.
He’s the Western Conference’s Paul George in that if the Spurs are to overtake the Thunder/Lakers this season, they need in house improvement. Is Kawhi Leonard ready to provide it?
Kenneth Faried, A Player Who Elevates League Pass To Such Great Heights That It Practically Pays For Itself
A few weeks ago I was talking NBA basketball with a friend when Kenneth Faried’s name came up. The synopsis of our evaluation: If you don’t like Kenneth Faried, you don’t like basketball. It’s a cliché observation, but perfectly suited for everything this maniac does on a court. He has his flaws (and they’re glaring), but it’s easy to overlook them when you tally up how intense he his about accentuating the strengths.
Last night against the Clippers he attempted to throw a skip pass in the direction of a wide open teammate standing in the corner. The ball looked like a balloon attached to an invisible rocket as it sailed out of bounds. Stuff like this is going to happen, but it’s all forgiven. Faried has the potential to lead the NBA in rebounds, and he doesn’t back down from anybody. He’d fit in splendidly on every single rotation in the NBA, and any general manager would take him in a second if Denver ever placed him on the table.
Blake Griffin vs. The Universe
Last season, the natural continuation of Blake Griffin’s stratospheric ascension towards an eventual Hall of Fame induction was supposed to take place. Instead, the public turned on him for being a whiner, his free-throw percentage dipped below Shaquille O’Neal’s career average, and fellow players decided to connect the two flaws by placing his career in danger almost every time he drove to the basket. Millions of people in this country endured a less fortunate year than Blake Griffin, but his was probably the most startling.
In a preseason game last week, Griffin slammed home a particularly ferocious dunk then hung on the rim for one beat too long, drawing the ire of a rock solid lumberjack named Paul Millsap. (By the way: despite everything you’ve seen or read, Paul Millsap does not chop wood for a living.)
It was only a preseason game, but the two turned the rest of the night into a main event wrestling match, with Griffin gaining the upper hand on most trips down the court. These are the matchups I’m looking forward to seeing with Blake Griffin. He’s supposedly added a jumper to his offensive repertoire, effectively using glass from the left block like a young Tim Duncan so far this preseason. If he’s able to improve his shooting to the point where defenders have to guard him on pick and pops, stops all the scowling, and recaptures the respect of his contemporary colleagues, this could be the second Year of Blake we’ve endured in the last three.
Paul Millsap/Josh Smith/Kevin Martin in a contract year
Ah, yes. The contract year for borderline All-Stars battling for one final extravagant payday. Out of the three players listed above, not only is Martin the most likely to get traded (although the other two shouldn’t be ruled out), but he’s almost assured to receive the least amount of money on his next contract. He could also have the most statistically impressive season, but in the grand scheme of things, Martin’s skill set simply doesn’t figure into a winning formula. He’s about to turn 30 years old and is prepping for his ninth season in the league. I’m pretty sure we won’t see any significant growth from Martin moving forward, but he should be noticeably better this year than he was in 2011-12.
Looking at Josh Smith, behind Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, he’s probably the biggest fish in next summer’s ocean of free agency (see what I did there?). Smith is the early 1990′s Buffalo Bills of the NBA All-Star game in that he comes so close to getting over the hump every year but just can’t seem to get there. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a high impact basketball player on both ends of the court on a nightly basis. This season he’s officially the first option on offense for an intriguing Hawks team, and bags of money are on the line. He’ll be fun.
Thanks to Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap is
probably hopefully out of Utah next season, and whichever team gets him won’t be sorry. He heads into this season entering his prime, coming off the best year of his career (that 21.8 PER was mighty shiny), and remains on the Best Power Forward list beside Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake Griffin. His effort is unquestioned, and he’s a great player. I’m excited to see how much better he gets this year.
If you want to gut your team—purposefully turning the roster into basketball’s equivalent of a cheap hooker—then let ping-pong balls decide your fate, all the power to you. That’s your right as an organization, and as long as you’ve done quality homework in evaluating the incoming draft class, it’s not a bad strategy.
On the other hand, if you choose to sacrifice the present like Aztecs looking to sustain Earth’s rotation by decapitating pregnant women, shrewdly setting yourself up for a clean cap sheet with trades and one-year contracts, then that’s all fine and dandy as well. This is what the Miami Heat did, and look how they turned out. After all, this is rebuilding, a process that leaves no pair of hands clean.
Except if you’re the Lakers. After crapping all over the Staples Center in two straight postseasons, looking lethargic and smug on both ends of the court until the final buzzer sounded and their season had turned into a summer vacation, they somehow managed to turn “legitimate” pieces into Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. If you count Howard and Nash as one transaction (for no particular reason, just roll with it for a second) this is the second time in five years the Lakers altered their franchise with a deal that’s lopsided in a completely unsubtle way.
You want to know why people hate the Lakers? That’s why. They pretend big name free agents don’t want to sign there, even though pretty much every player in the NBA would love to play home games in front of beautiful actresses and Facebook single Rihanna, then they go out and acquire them anyway. If the don’t win the title this year, I’m almost certain they’ll flip Pau Gasol for Kevin Love. Why? Because that’s just what the Lakers do.
Even if I wasn’t born in a Boston hospital then raised in Newton, Massachusetts’ fine public school system, I’d still loathe everything about this organization. Respect them? Sure. I respect their ability to monopolize a free market that includes 29 other teams. That’s awfully difficult to
get away with pull off year after year. Bravo, Lakers.
By the way, you still don’t have a bench, so good luck playing catchup in the playoffs when Steve Nash is only on the court 28 minutes a night and the offense is placed in the hands of a truly lethal Chris Duhon/Steve Blake duo. That has championship written all over it. (Who am I directing my comments at right now? To be honest, I’m not sure. I just despise the Lakers more than I probably should.)
Wasted Potential In Sacramento (Soon To Be Seattle)
So many of Sacramento’s players are wonderful individual talents; good enough to someday participate in actual rotations on actual teams that actually possess the slightest clue as to what they should be doing.
Tyreke Evans is frustrated and/or lost. DeMarcus Cousins is lost and (not or) frustrated. Aaron Brooks is too good of a player not to have signed with a semi-contender in a “spark plug off the bench capacity.” (Seriously, why isn’t he backing up Mike Conley Jr. in Memphis?) Thomas Robinson might have to play out of position because Jason Thompson is on the cap sheet at power forward for the foreseeable future.
There are too many messed up things going on. For each game Cousins remains in a Kings uniform, it feels like everyone involved in the organization’s decision-making process is running up a burning building’s lone staircase. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST TRADE HIM TO SAN ANTONIO OR CLEVELAND AND BE DONE WITH IT. Believing Cousins will ever mature as a franchise pillar in Sacramento (soon to be Seattle) has moved past the stage of looking like a fool’s errand. Break this thing up before everyone’s careers are permanently stained.
Chris Paul’s pending free agency
This won’t be a relevant topic of conversation until the regular season comes to a close, and the Clippers don’t win the championship. But there will be a day in the future when Chris Paul’s free agency situation will be a daily headline, and as someone who appreciates action on the basketball court more than all the ridiculous rumors off it, this is honestly something I can’t bring myself to caring about.
Also, I just moved to Los Angeles, and reeeeeeally love watching this guy play basketball. So stick around, Chris!
Thomas Robinson, A Rookie Who Elevates League Pass To Such Great Heights That It Practically Pays For Itself
Before last Sunday night, I was riding along the New Orleans Hornets bandwagon with everyone else. Then this happened:
I’m officially excited for Thomas Robinson to obliterate everyone and everything who/that stands in his path.
I lied. Here Are A Few Predictions. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…)
Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals:
1) Miami Heat vs. 8) Philadelphia 76ers — Heat in 4
2) Boston Celtics vs. 7) New York Knicks — Celtics in 5
3) Atlanta Hawks vs. 6) Chicago Bulls — Bulls in 6
4) Indiana Pacers vs. 5) Brooklyn Nets — Nets in 7
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals:
1) Miami Heat vs. 6) Chicago Bulls — Heat in 5
2) Boston Celtics vs. 5) Brooklyn Nets — Celtics in 5
Eastern Conference Finals:
1) Miami Heat vs. 2) Boston Celtics — Celtics in 7
Western Conference Quarter-Finals:
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8) Dallas Mavericks — Thunder in 4
2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 7) Utah Jazz — Spurs in 5
3) Denver Nuggets vs. 6) Memphis Grizzlies — Grizzlies in 7
4) Los Angeles Lakers vs. 5) Los Angeles Clippers — Lakers in 7
Western Conference Semi-Finals:
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 4) Los Angeles Lakers — Thunder in 7
2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 6) Memphis Grizzlies — Grizzlies in 6
Western Conference Finals:
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 6) Memphis Grizzlies — Thunder in 6
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 2) Boston Celtics — Celtics in 6