Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

Tag Archives: NBA Preview

All the What Ifs in the World won’t take the Pain Away – Portland Trail Blazers Preview

“Why does shit like this always happen to my rotten ass?” – R.L.H.

The man who said the words above probably didn’t realize he was speaking for the downtrodden and hard luck of the world when he spoke those words of frustration and exasperation. Nor did he realize I’d be using his words to describe a sentiment shared by Portland Trail Blazers fans from sea to shining sea, but here we are…

The Blazers’ injury and draft-related woes have been re-told as a cautionary tale to would-be GMs for years like some kind of pro basketball boogeyman creeping in the knees and joints of promising Portland players, just waiting to strike when the time is worst. Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are the latest victims of said boogeyman, but Darius Miles, Sam Bowie (different circumstance) and Bill Walton find themselves associated with some variety of Rose City fever. To be fair, Bowie and Oden had the misfortune of preceding Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant in the draft; a sin so egregious that both men’s names will be forever intertwined with the Hall of Famers who came after them.

As much as I fantasize about an encyclopedic-length Choose Your Own Adventure novel based on NBA scenarios that could’ve, but didn’t happen (guarantee I’ll revisit this idea multiple times in the future), reality still looms with its cold hands and dark mornings. Despite the Roy/Oden apocalypse, the Blazers’ 2011-12 reality is much more comfortable than the unforgiving steel of a coroner’s cold table—which is where Roy’s career sadly resides. Mourning is a necessary part of the grieving process, but let’s not lose sight of the potentially exciting group Portland’s pieced together beginning with a man who’s blossomed over his five-year career: Mr. LaMarcus Aldridge. Prior to last season, I never liked his game and considered him soft by NBA standards. At 6’11” with broad shoulders, athleticism, balance and coordination, he was far too talented to get seven boards a night over his first three seasons. In Roy’s absence last season, Aldridge matured and seemed to become tougher, smarter and more polished at the same time. If I’m holding him to the All-NBA standards he’s achieved, the only thing I can ask is for him to continue improving his rebounding. 8.8 boards per game still seems like an underachievement. The other area of concern is that Aldridge just had the second heart surgery of his career for a condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. From all reports and internets, it’s not a life or career-threatening issue, but damn … can a Blazer fan go through an anxiety-free season?

It’s a fun cast of characters with Aldridge. Raymond Felton’s back it with the weight issues and while it’s easy to make jokes about fat NBA players, Felton’s Ricky Hatton-esque off-season weight gain habit hasn’t prevented him from steadily improving as a pro point guard. He’ll be spelled by recent signing, the 50-point mercenary, Jamal Crawford who returns to the Northwest in a homecoming of sorts (he’s a Seattle product). Crawford has always been a mesmerizing player on the offensive side of the ball based on his lean, lanky physique and heat check-ability. His limbs are made of rubber which allows him to make cuts and do things with the ball that other humans are physically unable to do (except for Rajon Rondo, who seems to be from a similar planet). In another era (like the 70s), I feel like the Big JC would’ve been adored for the effectiveness of his on-the-court trickery and competed with Earl Monroe or George Gervin for icon status. Yep, I like me some Jamal Crawford and hope to someday write an e-book about him that uses Youtube clips for footnotes and celebrates his underrated contributions to physical creativity, artistry and inventiveness.

The Gerald Wallace/Nicolas Batum tag team isn’t quite as fresh as Jamal, but Crash and Batum should provide ample highlights. Batum’s one of those players who’s always overrated by video game developers and thus gets overrated by some percentage of video game-playing NBA fans simply because he’s good on a video game. The reason the pixelated version of Batum is nice is because two of his best skills translate perfectly to the gaming realm: Dunking and shooting threes. Is this the year the real-life version (just turned 23 and already has three years of experience in the NBA) lives up to the promise foretold by NBA 2K11? Or will he have to play second fiddle to Wallace’s maniacal efforts?

There are other Blazers of intrigue like Wes Matthews, Marcus Camby and the Rhino, Curt Smith and owner Paul Allen, who happens to be a bit stranger than I realized. Unfortunately, it’s the absences of Brandon Roy and a hobbling Greg Oden that continue to attract the headlines. Even if this group of players is able to make the playoffs and advance out of the first round for the first time since 2000, we’ll all witness it under the burning question … what if they had a healthy B. Roy and Oden? And what that happens, just look back to the quote at the beginning of this post.

A Hangover and a Lingering Smell of Scotch – Golden State Preview

Milton pitching in to cover the Warriors and the crew Don Nelson left them with.

For the roughly 20 years I’ve been a basketball fan with any level of cognitive awareness, the Golden State Warriors have been an intriguing franchise. From Run TMC, to the infancy of Chris Webber’s career to Sprewell vs. Carlisemo there has been no shortage of topics to dissect and debate. For 11 of the last 23 years Don Nelson coached this franchise. Those 11 years were not in succession – Nelson’s tours with GSW were from 88-95 and 06-10 – but the influence of his alchemy appears to have been so prevalent that no other coach could find success. As if Nellie poisoned the East Bay waters, the 12 other seasons GSW was coached by another man were all sub .500 finishes. Nellie wasn’t without his own poor seasons (34-48 in 93, 26-56 in 2010) but he led GSW to .500 or better in 6 of 11 years at the helm.

In 2007 the 8th seeded Warriors pulled off the improbable by knocking off MVP Dirk Nowitzki and his vaunted, 67-15 Mavericks. That GSW group was full of perimeter players who created mismatches on offense and utilized toughness to bang with bigger guys defensively. The outcome was viewed by some as affirmation that Nellie’s mad scientist approach can bring to life a contender. The reality is they got hot at the right time and Stephen Jackson scared the crap out of Dirk.

Since then GSW has tried desperately to get that swagger back. Cap’n Jack, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis are long gone. In their place, Nellie acquired the likes of Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Corey Maggette and things haven’t been the same since. Monta Ellis might be the fastest player in the NBA but he gives up so much defensively that the overall impact of his speed is negligible. Stephen Curry’s playmaking and defensive abilities have surprised me; however he appears better suited to play the two. His best skill is his jumper and his instinct tells him to shoot first and ask questions later. Andris Biedrins had one solid year and has since been injured or disengaged. How can you blame him for losing focus when Nellie didn’t even suit the same players up on a nightly basis from 08-10?

Near the end of Nellie’s second tenure with GSW, stories began to emerge about his affinity for liquor. Whether true or not, things had gone so awry in GSW that I often pictured Nellie wobbling drunkenly into the locker room on game nights like Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own. The end was near and everyone knew it. But after a long night of drinking comes the inevitable hangover.

Keith Smart coached the Warriors last year and the results were mixed, but mostly disappointing. The final tally was 36 wins and 46 losses but what do we really know about Smart as a coach? Not much. How can we judge him? He tried to play a more conventional style with a team of Nellie ballers.

Two key additions to last year’s squad who didn’t endure the bizarre Nellie experience, David Lee and Dorell Wright, provided solid production. Wright contended for Most Improved Player and Lee bounced back from a freakish tooth-in-the-elbow injury to average nearly a double-double (16.8, 9.8 reb). Lee and Wright are above average players but it’s hard to fit in with a Nellie roster if you’re not a Nellie player. Klay Thompson was selected with a lottery pick and is expected to contribute immediately. He’s got the pedigree (former Laker Mychal Thompson is his father) and can shoot the ball. Ekpe Udoh is long and has potential but looks more like Thabeet than Mutombo.

Smart didn’t make it to a second year. An ownership change may have necessitated a move at head coach but the hire is still perplexing. Mark Jackson has never coached in the NBA as an assistant or a head coach. He was one of the finer players at his position in his era (and a mediocre announcer). The challenge for Jackson will be to combine the Nellie players (Monta, Biedrins, Udoh and to a lesser extent Steph Curry) with non-Nellie players (Lee, Wright, Thompson, Brandon Rush) to find a suitable team identity. It won’t be easy … certainly not for a coach with no experience. And word is he wants this team to focus on defense.

Nellie hosted an enjoyable party with booze aplenty, but for Golden State’s loyal and basketball wise fans, the hangover still lingers. The challenge for this great fan base is to keep downing the Advil and Gatorade and hope the headache slowly goes away. Another trip to the lottery is likely in the works.

The Electric Milwaukee Personality Test – Milwaukee Bucks Preview

I remember the first and only time I stepped foot in the Bradley Center like it happened seven or eight years ago. It was a cold Milwaukee night in November and I was with a few college buddies making the trek from Iowa City up north. The police officers took jaywalking seriously and made some threats which we took seriously. Then we made it inside and my recollections get fuzzy. I remember the 23-year-old version of me being impressed by the dinginess of this NBA arena that seemed sepia-toned like I was watching the game through the lens of an old photo. The Kobe/Shaq Lakers beat the Bucks in what was a mostly forgettable game, but memories drift to the lower end of indifference … similar to how I felt when I sat down to write this preview.

The 2011-12 version of the Bucks are a most uninteresting collection of interesting individuals. Their owner is long-time Wisconsin Senator, Herb Kohl. I don’t know much about Kohl except a story I heard once from a friend who occasionally travels to DC for work. Kohl’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but piddles around the nation’s capital in a model of simplicity—a Ford Taurus. I realize there are plenty of thrifty millionaires, but given that Kohl owns an NBA team, this contrast found a way to stay stuck in my mind and I’ve always had an appreciation of Kohl since. (I hope the story’s true.)

Moving down the ladder a few rungs, we find Coach Scott Skiles who, from afar and second-hand accounts, appears to be possessed with a deep, unquenchable intensity. The kind of intensity that overrides any logic and convinces engage your teammate in physical battle … even if he’s 7’1”, 300+ pound Shaquille O’Neal and you’re 6’1”, 180lbs Scott Skiles. This temperament underlining a point guard’s skill set and vision is the primary genesis of the 2011-12 Bucks’ theories and strategies. I’ve always been curious about how the 47-year-old drill instructor of a coach gets along with his swag-heavy 22-year-old point guard, Brandon Jennings.

We know some of Jennings’s story: the preps to Euro-pros move, the 55-point game as a rookie, the streaking quickness and an Under Armour sponsorship that won’t quit. If you don’t have League Pass or NBA TV, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Jennings’s unorthodox (for a basketball player) workouts in commercials (Bosu planks and pushups, exercises to strengthen the core and improve balance, jumping and touching the ball against the backboard over and over, etc) more than you’ve actually seen him in a Bucks uniform. The workouts, like much of what Jennings does, are designed and promoted as new, fresh, ahead of the game which he’s always presented himself as: from the high-top fade at the McDonald’s All-American game to skipping college to make some money and play in Europe to the faux hawk to signing an endorsement deal with a non-basketball traditional shoe company to his gritty, sweat-drenched, highly marketed workouts—Brandon embraces the new. But his coach embodies the old; he was emblematic of the old even when he was a younger player—short shorts, receding hairline, Indiana roots. Having played the same position and the point guard being a natural extension of the coach makes this a fascinating relationship that happens to be part of the role dynamics of the NBA and pro sports; it’s just that stylistically, Jennings and Skiles couldn’t be much more of a study in contrasts.

Sticking with Jennings; we also know he’s capable of nuclear scoring outbursts like the 55 he droped … in his seventh game … as a rookie. No rookie since Earl the Pearl Monroe (aka, Black Jesus) scored 56 in 1968 has done better than Jennings. If his nickname was Black Jesus, what’s that make Jennings? In one 48-minute stretch, Jennings expanded the possibilities of his own personal stratosphere and simultaneously raised the expectations of the pro basketball public. That was 2009 and it’s his most definable moment and will be tough to overcome since we all only have one rookie season for each career we choose. It will always be a special marker of the Brandon Jennings narrative, but the progression of his career will determine its prominence.

The Bradley Center might be a big warehouse with some seats and a couple baskets, but Andrew Bogut’s raucous group of fans called Squad 6, the Fear the Deer campaign and now Stephen Jackson’s inclusion have filled the arena and its Euro-style fans with some fun and hopefully a few more wins. On the fun (or worrisome) side of things, Jackson’s a wild card and Bogut’s known for being outspoken and averse to biting his tongue. Jennings and Skiles have co-existed through two seasons, but Skiles has a way of wearing teams down with his intense approach. For Milwaukee beat reporters, there should at least be plenty of quality post-game quotes.

Among others, these are the first questions that come to mind when I think about the potential of this team:

  1. Has anyone checked on Michael Redd?
  2. Has Andrew Bogut’s elbow finally healed? The man shot 44% from the free throw line last year. Bucks fans can only hope this was an injury-related 44%.
  3. Will Brandon Jennings’s video-documented workouts make him a better player? He claims the weight work is preceding a style change that will include more penetrating and less three-chucking (over two years, he’s shot 4.8 threes/game—bad enough for 15th most 3pa/game and the worst 3p% of any of the players who shot more than him).
  4. Has Carlos Delfino recovered from his post-concussion symptoms from last season? We’ve seen Justin Morneau in baseball, Sidney Crosby in hockey, Delfino in the NBA and who can possibly count the number of NFL-related head injuries. It’s spooky to think about how little we knew about concussions 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
  5. Stephen Jackson?

The more time I spend contemplating this Bucks team, the more I find myself being drawn into the complex players, relationships and talents that make up the group. I don’t know what to expect on the floor, but it hinges on a combination of the questions above and the chemistry that does or doesn’t develop in the locker room. I’m not quite ready to Fear the Deer, but I’ll proceed with necessary caution.

Less Might not be More, but in Detroit, it’s Better – Detroit Pistons Preview

Around the same time the Great Recession hit Detroit, something happened to what felt the Midas Touch (Darko aside) Detroit Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars possessed. The Recession crippled Detroit as bad as any city in the country. City Mayor and former Pistons guard, Dave Bing resorted to bulldozing buildings and vacant houses, downsizing a city once that once stood for the blue collar industriousness of an entire nation. Across the way in Auburn Hills, a team built on the same ethos as its city, right down to their gritty slogan, “If it ain’t rough, it ain’t right,” paralleled the city’s decline. Sport imitating life?

It was a swift fall from NBA grace (59 wins in 2007-08 to 39 wins in 08-09 to 27 wins in 09-10) for the Eastern Conference’s standard bearer of the mid-2000s, but the team changed for the worse, just like its home city. For Detroit, it appears to be a surface-level change. The auto industry might be smarter, leaner and more efficient, but the labor force still drives the final product. The Pistons? Dumars? Not so sure Charlie Villanueva for over $35 mill and Ben Gordon for $58 million is smart, lean or efficient.

I’ve read and heard Joe’s supporter’s claims that his hands have been tied over the past few years while Pistons’ ownership was in limbo. It’s hard to believe that line when Dumars is on the hook for the above amnesty-worthy contracts or the severely flawed, 54-game Allen Iverson experiment. Did Joe just get lucky with Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, the Wallaces and Larry Brown? Or is he a savvy GM chomping at the bit to build one more winner?

For the here and now, the Pistons are about as exciting as bread sandwiches. They’re a mix of young and old with two ties to the championship squad of 2004 remaining: Prince and Big Ben Wallace. Rip Hamilton and his mask have finally departed, leaving the two-guard spot to the aforementioned Gordon; a 6’3” guard whose style and physique recall the Microwave, Vinnie Johnson. In Detroit, Gordon’s efficiency has taken a slight dip to his pre-Pistons career, but his opportunities have dried up—minutes/game (down 15%), shots/game (down 30%)—and impacted his productivity. At point guard, Rodney Stuckey may or may not return, but what impact does this 50 Cent doppelganger really have? Is there a drastic drop-off from Stuckey to Will the Thrill Bynum or rookie guard, Brandon Knight? The lineup data at 82games.com says yes as Stuckey consistently appeared in the Pistons most productive lineups. The backcourt isn’t depressing unless you’re in search of the next Isaiah/Dumars or Billups/Hamilton. If you’re cool with an average-to-slightly-above-average backcourt, then you’ll love Detroit’s backcourt.

Nine of out of ten basketball fans agree the chief (no Parish) reason they tune into Pistons games is to see Greg Monroe. The remaining one of ten is player’s families and Jonas Jerebko fans (don’t sleep on Jerebko). In his first season in Detroit, Monroe showed a keen and practical basketball mind. Imagine a bespectacled Monroe reading the channels and dimples of a basketball. This is the guy I see. At 6’11”, Monroe’s smooth and comfortable passing out of the high or low posts, provides coverage on the boards and proved capable of scoring—although we didn’t see him presented with too many scoring opportunities as a rookie. New coach Lawrence Frank has referred to him as a “hub” on offense. I like it, but I’m not sure if it’s more of a compliment to Monroe’s versatility or an indication of the rest of the Pistons’ offensive woes.

After the toxic stench that permeated last year’s locker room and nearly led to a mutiny; a new owner and coach probably make the early season feel like one long Sunny Sunday morning. Rip, T-Mac and Kuester have all left the building, leaving Dumars and Frank to work overtime to rebuild this team. Success won’t happen overnight and it’ll take some creativity to escape the Gordon/Villanueva mistakes, but as the architect of the only NBA champion of the past 20 years to not revolve around the gravity of at least one superstar, Joe’s proven capable of being successful by taking a different route.

Nothing Changes, but the People get Older – Atlanta Hawks Preview

Deep in the heart of the south, in a place marked by crisscrossing highways and oppressive heat; an NBA franchise and its fans live in dull, apathetic pain. The strange ownership saga that began back in 2005 when the Atlanta Spirit group purchased the team is finally over, but the 2011 team, like its predecessors dating back to the Dominique Wilkins days seem destined to forever be a potential playoff spoiler and nothing more. Where Nique’s Hawks were at least entertaining, this bunch has become plodding and predictable (they ranked 27th out of 30 teams in pace last year).

The Hawks’ current path can be traced back to July 8th, 2010 when they made the decision to re-sign a then 29-year-old Joe Johnson to a six-year, $119million deal that will wind up paying him just under $25million in 2016, when he’s 35. This is the same Joe Johnson who’s made just one All NBA team (and it was an All NBA Third team) in his ten-year career. The same Joe Johnson who completed the 2010-11 season with his least productive numbers since 2006 and he’s going to be eating up nearly half of Atlanta’s cap space for the foreseeable future.

Then there’s Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague who provide at least a glimmer beyond the dull glow of an annual second round playoff defeat. I’m trying to find something to get excited about with this team, but I’ve seen them play, there’s just not much to look forward to. At least last year Jamal Crawford had the imagination to occasionally captivate the audience. Now there’s just Jeff Teague; a 23-year-old point guard entering his third year enveloped in hopeful curiosity after his performance as a fill-in for the injured Kirk Hinrich in the playoffs. Teague could be what the Hawks have previously resisted (I won’t revisit the painful details of the 2005 draft): a pace-pushing starting point guard. The eight-game audition last spring isn’t enough to start pulling back flips and actually buying tickets to Hawks’ games, but at least it’s a departure from what’s become routine from Joe, Horford and Josh Smith (stop shooting those threes!).

With $65million committed to just nine players they have under contract, don’t expect many recognizable free agents heading to Atlanta. And since they had just one pick in the 2011 draft (Keith Benson from Oakland University), we’ll see the same crew they trotted out last year—minus Crawford and with Teague seeing more of a featured role early in the season while Hinrich recovers from shoulder surgery.

It’s not all bad though. With Boston’s big three getting older and losing some of that bark (looking at you, KG) and Orlando being distracted by new trade rumors every day, there’s an opportunity for the Hawks to be the third best team in the conference. It seems like the front office is content in that three-to-five range where they’re guaranteed to make the playoffs and, so their logic seems, at least have a chance to win it all. I blame these low expectations directly on the 2008 playoffs when the upstart eight-seed Hawks captivated the basketball world by taking the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round. It was at that time that someone in Atlanta’s front office came to the conclusion that the underdog can win in the NBA and the teams they’ve built over the past three seasons have reflected that flawed rationale.

I’m sure the good marketing people in Atlanta are cooking up some compelling reasons to support the Hawks, but until this team redesigns its aesthetic and commitment to winning, I’d be hard pressed to spend money watching this them and based on last year’s attendance numbers, the residents of the Peach State agree.

 

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