Punch-Drunk Preview, Part I: The NBA-Wide Edition

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Good news, sports fans: Another NBA season begins tomorrow night. TNT is showing a Western Conference double-header that leads off with Mavs at Spurs and closes with Rockets at Lakers. If you’ve got League Pass, you can catch Magic at Pelicans in the early slot. (Eds note: That’s what we’ll be watching. November is for Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Anthony Davis. We’ll see enough Dirk and Duncan, come spring.)

In Part I of the Punch-Drunk Preview, we’ll discuss topics ranging in seriousness and importance across the league as a whole. On Wednesday, we’ll get down to the specifics of this year’s Timberwolves team.

Without further ado…

The Western Conference

1. Many are predicting the Top 8 from last year’s West to repeat as the conference’s playoff teams. The Suns sit there, fresh off a 48-win season with Isaiah Thomas as new third guard, wondering why they can’t get no respect. If forced to choose one, who is most likely to get bounced?

Andy G: Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant broke his foot. It’s not unrealistic to think that the injury will keep him out for longer than expected. If that happens, it’s not unrealistic to assume that his team — which continues to lose rotation players to practice injuries — would win less than the 48 or so games required for Western Conference Playoffs candidacy.

Patrick J: San Antonio Spurs. Many NBA writers have the Spurs as the favorite to come out of the West and some have them winning the 2015 NBA Finals. But with a few bad breaks, the Spurs could end up seeing their magical run end, and end it could with the Spurs essentially waving the white flag part way through the season and ultimately missing the playoffs. How can you project the Spurs as a possible title contender, but also see them as a possible lottery team? Age. The Spurs are old. Old teams tend to have more injury problems than younger teams. If two of the Spurs old stars, of the holy trinity of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili were to sustain a season-ending injury, the Spurs would have to claw to make the playoffs. They’re a remarkably well put-together team, in that all of the pieces fit together perfectly around Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. They’re not a remarkably deep team if you remove one or two of those stars. The Spurs’ role players are no more than that, and cannot step in and carry a team to wins in the stead of the greats. Father age catches up to all teams in time, and this time he might outpace San Antonio. Of course, there’s probably a better chance that the Spurs end up walking away with another title.

2. Not counting Anthony Davis — this question’s stock answer — what Western Conference player is poised for a breakout season? (Eds note: Since we’re previewing the Wolves tomorrow, let’s resist the temptation of a Bennett or Rubio inclusion here.)

Andy G: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz. Hayward’s efficiency dropped for some reason, last year. I’ll confess: I wasn’t paying close attention to Hayward and his terrible Jazz team. But I know they fired Ty Corbin and hired Quin Snyder, and if nothing else a coaching shake-up might help put the promising young wing player in different (better?) positions to succeed. Hayward is a pretty freaky athlete with nice skills. He can shoot, pass and dribble. (That about covers it, right?) I think he’ll have a big season.

Patrick J: Demarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings. BOOOOOOGIE! (Jalen Rose voice). Seriously, Cousins is already an excellent player who puts up numbers befitting of his stature as one of the top-tier centers in the NBA. But in reality, Cousins appears to be poised to break out as *the best* center in the NBA. Cousins might never win any congeniality awards, but he’s the most physically talented center in the League, and he continues to get better. His numbers last season (23 & 12) are already creeping into Kevin Love territory at the point where Kevin Love was just coming into his own with 20 & 15 in 2010-11.  Boogie will be the focal point of the Kings offense this season, and even with Rudy Gay stealing shots from him, I think he puts up even gaudier numbers that continue to put him in Love’s stat-stuffing company. Few ever “break out” into that echelon, but Boogie Cousins might this season.

3. Of the “developing” teams in the West — (Minnesota, New Orleans, Sacramento and Utah) — whose young core do you like the most, and why?

Andy G: Am I a homer if I say the Wolves? Probably. The Pelicans have The Brow, and many expect him to be a Top-3 player in the league, this year. Davis doesn’t turn 22 until March. So yeah, the Pelicans, and it doesn’t matter who is teammates are. (And FWIW, I also like Jrue Holiday more than most people seem to.)

Patrick J: As much praise as I just laid on Boogie Cousins, beyond him the Kings young core stinks: Ben McLemore’s rookie season didn’t inspire confidence, and Nik Stauskas plays the same position as McLemore. Which basically means at least one of their last two lottery picks is not likely to really make it with the Kings. So they’re out.

Whose young core do I like the best? The Wolves’, of course. Rubio’s still young and is already established. Wiggins looks like a high level two-way player already with the potentially to easily be much more. Bennett is beginning to look just like a high-level lottery pick should entering what in reality could be considered his second rookie season. And Zach Lavine may turn out to be nothing, but he could also turn out to be a part Deron Williams, part Russell Westbrook hybrid based on his elite-level talent. The Wolves are a few years away, and that’s if they ever get there at all, but collectively, their young pieces have far more talent than any other team’s, even if it’s true that Anthony Davis is and will be the best player on any of the teams mentioned.

4. What team from the West are you most looking forward to watching? Who’s your League Pass Favorite?

Andy G: I want to come up with something creative, but anything besides the Warriors feels like disingenuous reaching. Curry and Thompson — The Splash Brothers, as the kids are calling them — are the best show in basketball. They run and jack up threes like it’s an SNES video game on rookie mode. Add in Steve Kerr as a interesting new coach, and some interesting bench players like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala (!) and you’re getting 48 minutes of entertainment. Plus, Harrison Barnes is an enigma, and enigmas are more fun to follow than normal role players. Oh, and I’m making my first trip to Oracle this winter, so that gives them extra points here.

Patrick J: Phoenix on both fronts, and it isn’t even close. I fell in love with this team last season, and most of that came after they lost their coolest player, Eric Bledsoe. Now, Bledsoe’s back, and so is the rest of the crew–Dragic, Gerald Green, the Morris’, and newcomer showman Isaiah Thomas. If the Suns were servers in that restaurant in Office Space, they’d have like 114 pieces of flair.

5. Random (Serious) Western Conference Prediction

Andy G: The Spurs do not reach this year’s Finals. For one thing, it’s just playing the odds to bet on “The Field” in this Western Conference. But for another, I think the league MUST have taken notice of the Spurs motion offense principles, and energy-preserving tactics, and will both: a) copy them; and b) develop better counter strategies. Remember when Thibodeau and Garnett discovered how to contain isolation scorers? I think adjustments can, and will, be made to counter a ball-movement offense, too. And then Pop will adjust, like he always does. But not without a minor setback, like not reaching this year’s finals.

Patrick J: Portland isn’t that good. Portland always seems to be teetering between contender status in the Western Conference and borderline irrelevance. They came out strong last year but turned out to be middling. I kind of feel like Damian Lillard has peaked already, LMA has peaked already and could begin the downslope of his career not to mention the dominance he has exhibited at times the last several seasons, and the rest of the team is filled with role players. These guys will do their jobs regardless, but if Lillard and/or LMA don’t both have great seasons, you’ve got a much more ordinary Portland squad than their fans want to believe.

6. Random (Wild & Not Totally Serious) Western Conference Prediction

Andy G: Demarcus Cousins gets traded before the deadline. He’s the Kings best player, by far. He also has yet to shake the reputation of being extremely difficult to deal with. The Kings are going to be bad, once again, and it’s now Cousins’ fifth year in this losing environment. Just ask Kevin Love how that feels. It wouldn’t surprise me if DMC blows up one too many times and he’s traded away, out of SacTown. The Kings would get some real assets in return for such a skilled big man. One possible Cousins trade: How about to the Raptors for Jonas V, some contract fillers, and the Knicks 2016 1st Rounder? Works on the trade machine.

Patrick J: Kobe Bryant averages 25+ points per game. Because he can.

Eastern Conference Questions

1. The big question first: Chicago or Cleveland? (And no, not regular season record — which one is playing in the Finals?)

Andy G: Cleveland. Even if Rose is 90% of his old self and Chicago wins 60 games, LeBron’s too good to bet or predict against. With Love spreading the floor for him as an elite stretch four, and Kyrie relieving a great deal of the ball-handling duties, LBJ’s going to transition wonderfully into this next stage of his career. His Cavs are going to be very, very hard to beat.

Patrick J: Cleveland. They have the best player, better supporting players, an excellent coach, and the right mix of vets to support the main attractions. I think the Cavs will be the best team in the League, and it might not be that close.

2. Over/Under on number of Philly quarters you’ll watch on League Pass this year: 3 (remember: They do have Nerlens Noel AND Alexey Shved.)

Andy G: Under. It pains me to watch Shved play so poorly — I used to be a big fan — and Noel’s shot-blocking isn’t enough to draw away from other, legitimate, NBA games. Thinking this through, to the likely early-slate competition, I’d wayyyy rather watch Marcus Smart’s Celtics. And they’ll be awful, too. They’ve at least got Smart, Avery Bradley’s defense, Jeff Green’s moments, and Kelly Olynyk’s hair. Okay that last one is not a draw. Still.

Patrick J: Under. If SportVu is collecting tracking data on my LP viewing habits, I don’t want to risk the possibility of confusing its algorithms and running the risk of them interpreting bewilderment about Sam Hinkie’s science project as genuine interest or enthusiasm for it.

3. Of the (many) rebuilding teams in the East, which piques your interest and why?

Andy G: Detroit Pistons. You could argue that they’re not actually rebuilding, since Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are veteran players, and Greg Monroe — who just made the rare decision to sign the qualifying offer (meaning he’ll become an unrestricted free agent, next summer) — is leaving next year. But the Pistons’ most promising player, Andre Drummond, is very young with huge potential. And with new coach Stan Van Gundy, many expect rapid upgrades in basketball intelligence from both J-Smoove and Jennings. If that happens, and the Pistons play anything like Stan Van’s Magic, this group will be fun to watch, and very competitive.

Patrick J: Boston Celtics. They still have Brad Stevens, lots of trade picks, Rajon Rondo, a storied history, and, for those who care about the basketball that’ll be played this season, a decent group to watch. You could do worse than trying to unlock the riddles we’ll see posed by combinations of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Jeff Green. Oh, and Evan Turner and MARCUS THORNTON! Yep, I’ll be tuning in.

4. Most important Eastern Conference player not named LeBron James?

Andy G: Has to be Derrick Rose, right? With a Taj Gibson-Joakim Noah front line to deter LeBron James from attacking the rim, Chicago is halfway toward title contention. The Bulls had the league’s 2nd best defense, last year. But on offense? They were 3rd to last. That’s where Rose comes in. If he can carry the load on that end of the floor — like he did when he was last healthy, and the Bulls had good offenses — they’ll rival Cleveland in the East. There’s a lot of pressure on the hometown hero, coming back from such a prolonged absence.

Patrick J: Kevin Love. If Love plays well and buys into the Cavs system, they’ll be almost impossible to defeat. But if, for some reason, Love ends up unhappy and behaves like a spoiled child, Cleveland isn’t guaranteed big-time success–instead, the Cavs could struggle to win games. (Eds. Note: See, e.g., Love’s entire career in Minnesota.)

5. Random (Serious) Eastern Conference Prediction

Andy G: John Wall makes 2nd or 3rd Team All-NBA. Wall made strides as a player last season, adding a three-point shot to his repertoie. This year, with Bradley Beal sidelined for a while with an injury, I expect Wall to carry a bigger load in the scoring column and (slightly) surprise people with more all-around dominance. In the end, I think his team makes the playoffs, he’s the reason why, and he gets a new accolade to show for it.

Patrick J: John Wall makes 2nd or 3rd Team All-NBA. I’m with you here.

6. Random (Wild & Not Totally Serious) Eastern Conference Prediction

Andy G: Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up worse stats than he had last year. I’ve never been quite as high on The Greek Freak as everybody else seems to be — at least not from a pure, basketball-quality perspective. And I think that his massive increase in attention — both on and off the floor — combined with trying to fit into a new system, next to Jabari Parker, and under the questionable Jason Kidd as coach… might all add up to a worse season for Giannis. He shot 41 percent from the field, last year, posting a PER of 10.8. It wouldn’t shock me if both are worse in 2014-15. I think he has a long ways to go, but he’ll eventually become a league-average offensive player (with positive qualities on defense and in transition). It just won’t be this year, with this coach, these expectations, and this much work to do.

Patrick J: The Knicks find a way to trade for Danilo Gallinari and he averages 23.5 ppg in Phil Jackson’s triangle as zen-Scottie Pippen. Gallinari then suffers a season-ending back injury after slipping on the ice en route to his local cannoli store. (Eds. Note: Seriously, I think Gallo will have a breakout season, most likely in Denver, where he’s, umm…still under contract. I didn’t get to say that above, so I’m doing it here.)

Quick Hits, No Explanations

1. Rookie of the Year

Patrick J: Jabari Parker, Bucks

Andy G: Marcus Smart, Celtics

2. Most Improved Player

Patrick J: Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves

Andy G: Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves

3. Most Valuable Player

Patrick J: Lebron James, Cavaliers

Andy G: Blake Griffin, Clippers

4. Finals Prediction

Patrick J: Cleveland defeats Golden State

Andy G: Golden State defeats Cleveland

 

‘Til next time.

 

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