by Justin Cherot
Summer vacation is officially over… okay, so it was over like two months ago, but who’s counting? Anyway, to kill two birds with one stone–pay homage to summer while previewing what’s going to happen this upcoming NBA season– here’s a look at the NBA from top to bottom, Jersey Shore style.
(This is how we know LeBron James’ impacted pop culture: even Jersey Shore was held in Miami.)
30. Toronto Raptors
Attention NBA fantasy players: you will not be sorry drafting Andrea Bargnani, even if he does have a grenade-sounding name. There’s honestly no one else opposing teams should be scared of on their roster. Linas Kleiza is a stud in international ball but could barely get off the bench in Denver. Jose Calderon’s comet came and went. Even their prospect Ed Davis is limited. Exhibit “A” on why Denver should try as hard as they can to get value for Carmelo Anthony NOW!
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Coming from a guy who is (still) looking for a job out of college, I believe Byron Scott when he said he would have taken the job even if he knew how The Decision was going to go down. When you’re hungry, you’ll eat whatever you can get. This team has some very good complementary pieces with nothing to complement, unless you count Mo Williams, who if you recall from his Milwaukee days can go in to “get the eff out of the way” mode. This team may actually win more games than people project them to because I think they’ll be scrappy, but to label them as anything but a grenade at this point is just silly.
ANGELINA (as in, more fun to watch than most grenades)
28. Minnesota Timberwolves
David Kahn has been a human punching bag for the better part of two summers, including this interview with Chris Webber during an NBA Summer League telecast:
Funniest part of the video: Chris Webber’s sarcastic “good luck” at the end. Priceless. But, aside from overvaluing point guards and Mr. “Continues to Make Justin Cherot Look Like He Knows Nothing About Basketball” Darko Milicic, I actually like their roster. They’re still going to lose a ton of games, but on paper–and even in the meaningless preseason–I see a team that thrives on getting up and down the floor. I never got the sense that Mike Beasley enjoyed being the second banana to Dwyane Wade in Miami, even if he had no say in the matter. In Minnesota, he’ll get plenty of opportunities and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t up around 20 a game this season. This team is going to struggle stopping teams on a consistent basis, but for the first time in a while I wouldn’t mind watching the Timberwolves.
27. New Jersey Nets
When you finish 12-70, there’s nowhere to go but up. Yeah, they didn’t get any of the big-time free agents…or second-tier, but I do like the pieces they brought in (don’t sleep on Anthony Morrow, arguably the best shooter in the NBA). Their biggest addition was former Dallas Mavericks’ coach Avery Johnson, who will attempt to instill a defensive mindset into this otherwise young team. If Brook Lopez continues to blossom and Devin Harris can regain 2008-2009 form, this team may challenge for 30 wins.
26. Golden State Warriors
No. 2 on the “if they’re on television I absolutely HAVE TO DVR their games” list (anybody who follows me should know who’s number one). I played it safe to put them in this category for the simple reason that their three best players–Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee–can put up serious numbers offensively but don’t excel at the defensive end. Playing devil’s advocate, they have significantly more “defense first” guys on this squad, guys like Andris Biedrins, Charlie Bell, Lou Amundson, and rookie Ekpe Udoh. In the end, I think they will end this season in the next category, but putting them here maintains my journalistic integrity… if I have any.
25. Sacramento Kings
So much for Tyreke Evans being a bust, right? Maybe he’s not exactly my cup of tea as a player, but 20-5-5 as a rookie can’t be ignored. Pairing him with DeMarcus Cousins should add to larger numbers in the win column, but I still think these guys are a couple pieces away from competing in the West unless Donte Greene finds his game and Beno Udrih magically becomes more than the equivalent of a utility infielder in baseball starting on a bad team.
24. Detroit Pistons
I envy Ben Gordon a nd Charlie Villanueva for living the American Dream last season, essentially getting paid to do nothing. Okay, maybe that was harsh, since, especially in Gordon’s case, it’s hard to control nagging injuries. There’s way too much talent, particularly at the wing position (look out for Austin Daye), for the Pistons not to take a five to ten game jump by accident. Unfortunately, that’s not going to translate into a playoff trip given how the improvements by the rest of the Eastern bubble teams.
THE DEENA NICOLE EFFECT(AKA wait until next season)
23. New York Knicks
The Knicks remind me of my divorce from NBA Elite . I spent the better part of the summer Googling the game, sitting on pins and needles waiting for it to come out. Of course, we know what happened (or if you don’t, click the link), but “settling” on NBA 2K11 has been a very good experience thus far. My point is that even though the Knickerbockers didn’t land LBJ, they had a very solid summer, adding a big-time scorer/athlete/Jew in Amar’e Stoudemire and a point guard fully capable of running a high-tempo offense in Raymond Felton. The sleeper? Anthony Randolph, who may only be the most versatile player in the league if he were ever given consistent minutes. As currently constructed, I think they’re on the outside looking in mainly due to their porous defense, but if they can get a certain upcoming free agent swing man–starts with a “C” and ends with “armelo”, maybe they’d have enough offense to gloss over that obvious defect.
22. Philadelphia 76ers
I can hear my brother in-law Andy now. “Waaaaaaaay too low! Did you WATCH Andre Iguodala this summer???” I did, and even though I think he’s primed for a breakout season, there are way too many questions about the guys around him. In summation, 85% of his cast falls into the “just starting to find himself” or the “he’s been in the league long enough to find himself but hasn’t…yet” category. And then there’s Evan Turner, who right now is just screaming “bust” before even playing an NBA game that matters. The Sixers’ saving grace is that they’re a gritty bunch who will defend and run the floor. Oh, and pretty much every team outside of the two aforementioned grenades are in play in the East.
21. Los Angeles Clippers
On paper, this might actually be a playoff team, but unfortunately they fall outside for two reasons:
1) I have no idea what the Clippers are going to get out of Baron Davis after two unremarkable years in LaLa land. If he’s interested, they can be really good. If he eats too many game day meals at Fat Burger, they’ll be lucky to win 25 games.
2) They’re in the West.
However, there’s plenty to be excited about in LA. Barring another injury (and I hate to say it but it’s in play because these ARE the Clippers), Blake Griffin should provide at least one SportsCenter highlight a night and rate a 126 out of 10 on the “I play hard every possession” scale. Eric Gordon should be around 20 a game this season if Davis gets him the rock enough. Oh, and all Chris Kaman did was average about 19 and 10 last season. These guys, if nothing else, will be fun to watch… as long as Davis stays in shape.
20. Charlotte Bobcats
The ‘Cats did some good things last year, especially on the defensive end, but I think they’re a team stuck in neutral. Gerald Wallace is a good player, but he’s much better as a complementary piece in an uptempo system, not a go-to guy for a team that ranked 28th in scoring. Ditto for Stephen Jackson, whose better days are probably behind him. Defensively, this team will be pretty darn good, but replacing a starting point guard is tough, and D.J. Augustin screams good utility infielder to me. Their defense will keep them in the hunt into April, but while most teams took a step forward or backward this summer, the ‘Cats essentially went nowhere. Not a good thing when you’re on the playoff bubble.
19. New Orleans Hornets
Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the NBA, but when your “big” off-season pick-up is Trevor Ariza, you have to wonder how much longer he’ll be patient with Hornets management. David West will be a nice, consistent option down low, and Marcus Thornton should challenge for 6th Man of the Year, but none of that will translate into the Hornets getting back to the playoffs due to the West’s depth. Everybody talks about ‘Melo’s imminent departure from Denver, but if the Hornets get off to a slow start, expect the Hornets to deal Paul for Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler… sorry, just checking to see if you were still paying attention.
18. Phoenix Suns
This is how good the West is: I think the Suns will win somewhere around 43 games and not even be the last team out. So, why such a drastic drop? You just don’t lose guys like Stoudemire and expect to keep going without missing a beat. Steve Nash is easily the best player on this team, and even at 36 there are few point guards I’d rather have running my offense. But prepare the drug testing kit: I think the Suns’ drop-off would have been far less if they lost Nash instead of STAT, which in a way is a compliment to Goran Dragic. When the threes weren’t dropping last season, they could dump the ball inside or around the elbow to Stoudemire. This season, Robin Lopez will be there to collect the garbage points, but that’s about it for their inside presence, unless new signee Hedo Turkoglu wakes up one morning and realizes he’s 6’10”. Expect a lot of threes, shoddy defense, and some golf time around April.
17. Memphis Grizzlies
Maybe the Grizz overpaid Rudy Gay, but as we learned this summer, it’s better than him leaving without receiving adequate compensation in return (cough, Toronto and Cleveland). This team can score, but unlike some of the teams lower on the list, they do so extremely efficiently. Zach Randolph is in a CONTRACT YEAR and may average 29 and 19. O.J. Mayo may be the best third banana in basketball. Hell, Marc Gasol may be among the best centers in the league. Oh, and they added my boy Greivis Vasquez, who may be in Europe three years from now but I’ll always love the guy. If Hasheem Thabeet can give Memphis any kind of defensive presence inside, they could definitely sneak into the playoffs. But, as of right now, the club just filled up.
16. Indiana Pacers
An up and coming swingman, Danny Granger, who can score in a variety of ways. A point guard, Darren Collison who played so well at times last season that he actually created the unthinkable: Chris Paul trade rumors. A blossoming center, Roy Hibbert, who seems to get better every time he hits the court. Along with a tough group of role players, that formula looks like it equals a playoff appearance in the East. The Collison addition will prove to be the most vital because it gives them long-term stability at the one.
15. Washington Wizards
Colin’s optimism when they announced that the Wiz would be getting the top pick: priceless. That’s what being a fan is all about. And you know what? Having watched some preseason games (I know, I know, preseason means nothing), that optimism is rubbing off. I think guards and opposing defenses are going to have problems staying in front of John Wall. I think Gilbert Arenas, despite some early hiccups in the media, will eventually become a competent teammate who may actually thrive alongside Wall. I think JaVale McGee‘s experience with team USA, despite not making the squad, ultimately helped his development as a player. I think the Wizards have a ridiculous bench and literally have five players on that bench who can start for a lot of teams. I can’t sign off on them completely, because The Artist Formerly Known as Agent Zero can go off the deep end at any time, but I don’t see them missing the playoffs for the third year in a row.
14. Portland Trailblazers
Is it just me or do the Blazers seem to age in dog years? Once upon a time, they were young and hip. Now? They have two starters who could are eligible to withdraw money from their 401K without penalty in Marcus Camby and Andre Miller. Brandon Roy, although only he is only 26, has the knees of a 62 year-old. I won’t even talk about Greg Oden, because Blazer fans might shed a tear. With the injuries piling up and the improvments throughout the Western Conference, I can’t see these guys any higher than 8th in the conference at this time.
13. Milwaukee Bucks
Good summer for the Bucks as they re-upped John Salmons and got a prolific scorer in Corey Maggette (note: if I went into the Bucks’ locker room and dropped a dollar, I have Salmons and Maggette coming to blows over it). That gives plenty of help to Andrew Bogut, who will be good to go in about a month, and one of my favorite tweeters Brandon Jennings, who will be deadly if he can get to the mid-40’s from the field. Plenty of reason to “Fear the Dear.” Crap, now they have me saying it.
12. Utah Jazz
If you ask around the league, many GMs would probably prefer to have Deron Williams than CP3 running the show, and for good reason: he’s a better shooter, he’s stronger, and his style of play has a better chance at being universal no matter what offense he’s heading. That said, Williams and Paul both have something in common: they’ve been toiling away around the middle of the Western Conference since their inception. I don’t think that this year will be any different, unfortunately, especially after losing Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, not to mention letting Ronnie Brewer go for basically nothing. Al Jefferson will duplicate some of Boozer’s production, but it’ll be interesting to see if his numbers were just a product of being the man on an awful team. Hard to have the Jazz any higher than seventh in the West.
11. Denver Nuggets
As of 10:54 PM on Oct. 25, Carmelo Anthony is still a Nugget, meaning I can’t drop Denver any lower. After a great ’08-’09 run to the Western Finals, they definitely took a step back as a team last year. Part of it was just the parity in the West, but I think George Karl‘s illness, which sidelined him down the stretch including the playoffs, had a great deal to do with them flaming out and not living up to expectations. They’ll already be a couple men down in the front court to start this year: Kenyon Martin may out until January and Chris Andersen might be gone for the first month of the season. Thankfully, they’ve added a little bit of depth by signing Al Harrington, who could emerge as a versatile scoring option for them. Honestly, though, where this team finishes will depend heavily on Anthony. If he sees the entire season through, they’ll be a playoff team at the minimum. If not? Well, let the Harrison Barnes‘ sweepstakes begin.
10. Houston Rockets
Yao Ming is back, and even if he’s only on the floor for 25 minutes a night, he gives Houston a presence inside that quite frankly they did not have after trading Carl Landry last year… and they still won 42 games. I think it’s safe to say that a semi-healthy Ming can add eight or more wins to their total. Houston may have the purest shooting backcourt in the entire league with Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, and they have role players in bunches that are willing to engage in the dirty work. I can’t put them any higher than fifth in the West because it’s hard to predict Ming’s impact over the course of a season.
9. Atlanta Hawks
In theory, it’s good to be Joe Johnson. In a summer when three guys from South Beach held us hostage with headlines and celebrations and tweets, Johnson walked away with the most money: six years, essentially $120 million. However, now he has the impossible task of trying to live up to that deal, especially since he’s not a max type guy. To be honest, as a fan I would have loved for him to come to Dallas… because he would have been the perfect sidekick for a guy like Dirk. His team is locked in at either a four or five seed in their conference for the next several years. Oh, they have some nice pieces. Josh Smith is illegal on NBA 2K11 and very close to being illegal in real life, too. Al Horford is a double-double guy for the next 10 seasons. Jamal Crawford is one of the best scorers in the NBA coming off the bench. But the teams they’re looking up at are all clearly better.
RON RON JUICE (IN THE MIX)
Yes, I YouTubed how to make Ron-Ron juice. User mtentsos shows us how:
And I can’t figure out why I don’t drink anymore. Huh.
8. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls had the second best off-season in the league as they addressed their two biggest weaknesses. They got a four man who can score downlow (Carlos Boozer) and players who can stretch a defense (Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson) to add to an already solid core group of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Although this squad is loaded and primed for a 50+ win season, I still don’t think they have enough to defeat the other three Eastern teams in a playoff series. Still, this will be the best Bulls’ team since Jordan hung them up.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
The trendiest prediction this off-season has been the Thunder’s “imminent” rise to the second seed in the West. As much as I love Kevin Durant‘s game, I’m not quite ready to go there. He’s ready, but as mature as this young team plays on both sides of the ball, his cast isn’t quite there yet. Russell Westbrook may be one of the best young guards in basketball, but he’s still learning how to run the point, a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked in crunch time. The Thunder don’t really have that one guy who can really stretch a defense on a consistent basis, unless you count Morris Peterson, but is he really going to steal minutes from Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden? I still think this team is a year away from the finals, but one thing is for sure: they will be fun to watch.
6. San Antonio Spurs
As a Maverick fan, I obviously am not a big Spurs’ fan. So what does Gary Neal, probably the best player in my alma mater’s history and perhaps the best player I’ve ever had the privilege of being on the court with at the same time, do? He signs with the Spurs!!! Ugh!!!! Seriously though, I think this is it for the Spurs as far as being relevant. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are getting up there in age, and Tony Parker even seems a lot older than 28. I watched Tiago Splitter play during the FIBA championships, and even though he didn’t blow me completely away, he’s better than any center the Spurs have had recently, which gives them an added dimension to a crafty veteran team. They will definitely challenge for the Southwest throne, but I have a feeling another team will take it.
5. Dallas Mavericks
And this isn’t just a biased fan writing. The Mavericks have had some deep teams over the years, but this has to be the deepest I’ve ever seen them. They’re at least two deep with quality at every single position. I have to admit that as a fan, a title this season is still unlikely, mainly because they lose a series to any of the four teams ahead of them, but this is their best chance. The one issue surrounding this team throughout the years has been their tendency to get soft. Bringing in Tyson Chandler, even if he doesn’t start, wipes away much of that apprehension. But the biggest change this season is the fact that Rick Carlisle actually succumbed to the message board hype and is finally giving Roddy Beaubois significant playing time. Call me crazy, but remember when Monta Ellis was a young, humble player who completely blew up when he got consistent minutes? Well, Beau B will have a similar ascension, except that he’s a better long range shooter. Goose bumps. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Dirk Nowitzki yet, who seems to be getting even better with age. I’m not booking tickets to the finals yet, but I think this time around the Mavs will at least make it to late May.
4. Orlando Magic
A focused Dwight Howard? Because he’s so immensely talented and such a smiling fool, I didn’t think such a thing existed. Then LBJ went ahead and broadcast “The Decision“. All the attention shifted to South Beach, and I guess the shift in attention got Dwight’s attention, because for the first time since entering the league, he actually tried re-tooling his game during the off-season. How serious did he take it? He enlisted in Dream Camp.
As impressed as I am by Howard’s ability to pick up the advice and material, I am doubly impressed by how good Hakeem Olajuwon still looks. I mean, is there any doubt he can go out and put up a 16-8-2 right now!? Anyway, while the Magic have tremendous shooters around a dominant big man (Rashard Lewis, J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, and newly signed Quentin Richardson), what makes this season different? They couldn’t beat Boston last season and they had a premier defender on the perimeter in Matt Barnes who could slow down the Celtics’ twos and threes at times. This season? While Richardson is a minor upgrade over Barnes offensively (and that’s being generous), you lose versatility at the defensive end.
Which brings me back to Howard. If, and this is a big “if”, he comes back with re-newed focus and actual offensive moves, the Magic could challenge the Heat and the Celtics for the East title. If not, we’re looking at another 55+ win season that utlimately ends in disappointment.
3. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are the first team in recent memory not to be penalized for taking the regular season lightly. In fact, I would make the case that because they chilled during the regular season they came into the postseason re-invigorated. Doc Rivers did a tremendous job of massaging The Big 3’s minutes, and if not for a gruesome injury to Kendrick Perkins in the finals, the Celtics would have won the chip. Period. Instead, they enter this season with quite a few chips on their shoulders. The blown halftime lead. The whole Miami Heat deal. The “oh they’re too old and the window is closed” argument. That’s why the game tonight, even if it is game one out of 82 on the schedule, is so important. It sets a tone for the next several months. After this one, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo can kind of relax a little bit throughout the course of the season. But this one game, despite what Shaquille O’Neal says, means a bunch.
THE RAREST ROSES
My inspiration for this: Vinny and Pauly, amidst all the smuttery of Miami, actually found two girls they legitimately cared about and wanted to go on a double date. Unfortunately, Vinny’s date stood him up on that night and only Pauly went out (maybe a little flawed because by the end of the season Vinny’s date reciprocated the love, but whatev). The moral: only one man can be happy on a double date.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Oh boy. I can feel the criticism forthcoming. But allow me to make my case.
Aside from NASCAR where Jimmie Johnson is an absolute freak (Go Lowe’s!!!!), how hard is it to win a title, let alone three in a row, especially when your best player quite simply is not right? I know the title isn’t decided in October, but like it or not, Kobe Bryant is getting old. Sooner or later these little nicks and scratches that he’s played through these past couple of seasons are going to take their toll. I remember one game last season Bryant had a breakaway dunk that he just couldn’t get up for. And he’s only 32. It’s actually been an interesting case study to watch the development of those players that came out of high school and went straight to the league. Are there any from the ’95-’97 drafts that HAVEN’T showed signs of breaking down early? Tracy McGrady is 31, and even though he thrived in his early to mid 20’s his career is essentially done. While Bryant has been a freak, I think he’s two years away from being a really good third banana.
In order for the Lakers to prove me wrong and win it, they’re going to need Paul Gasol to become more than just a great sidekick. They’re going to need him to step up and be the alpha dog, the guy who gets the crunch time touches, the guy who simply says “We are NOT losing tonight!” Kobe can still talk the talk, but Gasol will ultimately need to walk the walk. Everything else is in place, but I really feel like this is the season that Bryant takes a signifcant step back. Which is why LA is Vinny and Miami is Pauly.
1. Miami Heat
The entire summer I was convinced otherwise until two things happened. First, I watched FC Barcelona–FC Barcelona–completely shut Kobe down even when he went into “we’re not losing” mode. The second instance came today when I saw this commercial:
Prior to this season, I’ve always privately thought that LeBron James was basically an ultra-talented guy that had already been annointed without accomplishing anything. He seemed to be the type of guy that was fine with just winning scoring titles and flirting with triple doubles. I wondered how important a championship was to him.
Going to Miami shows how serious he is about winning a title.
So what if he now has one of the best players in the league in Dwyane Wade flanking him (or the other way around if you want to debate)? So what if he has one of the top five big men in the NBA in Chris Bosh? He wanted to put himself in the best position to win it all. If it were all about marketing, he’d be wearing blue and orange right now.
And if this summer hasn’t knocked him off his pedestal, it at least knocked him a little off balance. Maybe that’s what he needed. Like MJ, maybe he needs a slew of haters to fuel the fire. And he’s got it. He’s got doubters.
I’m just no longer one of them.