Thursday, October 30, 2008

Poll Question: Byron Scott = Sgt Doakes?

Check out the pictures below, and then place your vote to the right. Act now, polls close on Nov. 6!


VERY IMPORTANT NEWS

Yesterday was a lovely day filled with tons of games and lots and lots to think about (Darrell Arthur?!). But for right now, I would just like to direct you to the NBA website, where you can sign up for a free trial of NBA League Pass through November 11. That is two full weeks of free games! You could have seen the brilliant DNP-CDs for Eddy Curry and Stephon Marbury (finally!), or Stephen Jackson playing point guard for the Warriors, or Chris Bosh destroying Philadelphia (countdown to Kevin Garnett comparisons in 3, 2, 1 . . . ).

And in case you missed any of those, you can use your free League Pass trial to watch them rerun style and fast-forward through commercials. Even fast-forward through free throws, if you like. 

Note to Bill: So are we believing already, after the first game? I will say: huzzah Wilson Chandler! re: the Warriors -- before the season, a 5 point loss to the Hornets without Monta Ellis would have sounded fantastic. Although I was kind of hoping to see Brandan Wright make it onto the floor.

And finally, one last public service announcement, c/o William:

Also, we'd like to extend an offer to McFruity and all readers (except Scott Peterson). If you want in on a/another fantasy league: Yahoo! league ID# is 147386 and the Password is kamaal. Draft is Monday at 11pm (EST), though you can rank players beforehand for an autodraft.


(Sorry Scott Peterson)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Opening Night Thoughts

It's back! The NBA is back! Thank goodness. Here's to a wonderful season!

I. Some Definitions


Some places online, most notoriously basketbawful, have made a habit out of naming boxscore statlines after the players who have made them famous. In a similar vein, I'm not sure who came up with it, but there is a statline known as the Eddy Curry, which is when a player has more turnovers than combined assists, steals, and blocks, or the Dwyane Wade triple double (points, assists, and turnovers). Anyways, as the season goes on, I'll introduce a few of my own such named statlines.

A. The Oscar Robertson
I didn't think up the Oscar, I read about it a year or two ago, but I can't seem to find the reference right now. Anyways, what's generally associated with Robertson is the triple double, but it's unreasonable to compare a player who could average 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists with someone who just happened to put up 13, 11, and 12 just because we happen to use a base-10 number system (or think of it like this: if we had been born with 6 fingers instead of 10, would we compare Nate McMillan to Oscar Robertson just because Nate could put up 6, 6, and 6?). So, for the purposes of this blog, an "Oscar" will be the name for when a player scores 30 or more points, and has 8 or more rebounds and 8 or more assists. Currently, the player most likely to put up an Oscar is Lebron James. This definition also segues well into the motivation for the next one --

B. The J-Kidd
This is when a player puts up 10-15 points (not more than 15, though), 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Bonus points if the player shoots under 40% from the field and picks up 3 or more turnovers. Jason Kidd himself has put up 48 J-Kidds in his career so far. Jason Kidd is still the player most likely to put up a J-Kidd.

C. The Dream
Hakeem Olajuwon had 61 games in his career where he collected 4 or more of both blocks and steals, so he gets this one named after him. Current players most likely to gather a Dream are Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Garnett, Gerald Wallace, and Josh Smith.

D. The Glenn Rice
This is when a player scores 30 or more points, but registers 2 or fewer rebounds and assists. Michael Redd is one of the current masters of this particular statline.

Now, with those out of the way, here are some thoughts I had about yesterday's action.

II. Boxscore Watching
I had to work late, so I unfortunately missed the two early games yesterday. Here are some very brief reactions to the boxscores and gameflows.

A. Cleveland 85 at Boston 90
The main story here appears to be Leon Powe, who scored 13 points on 7 shots in 23 minutes of play. Looking at the popcornmachine gameflow, Powe sparked runs as soon as he came into the game at the end of the first and third quarters after Cleveland had gotten a lead. At the end of the first they Celtics went on a 7-0 run as soon as he entered the game, and they went on an 8-0 run shortly after he entered in the 4th. Also of note: Mo Williams and Sasha Pavlovic combined for 7 turnovers and 2 assists, while Boobie Gibson ended up with 3 assists and no turnovers.

B. Bucks 95 at Bulls 108
Tyrus Thomas played 41 minutes in this game. In his career under Scott Skiles (and a half-season of Jim Boylan), he has had exactly one game where he played over 40 minutes, and only 7 games where he played over 35 minutes. It must have been nice to get all that playing time against the coach who kept him glued to the bench for the last two years, and he responded with 15 points (on 10 shots), 10 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, and two steals (speaking of guys happy to get some minutes, Joakim Noah got 3 blocks in 19 minutes). Derrick Rose came within an assist and some rebounds of putting up a classic J-Kidd, complete with 4 turnovers and 3-9 shooting. He had three steals, too, which on the highlights looked gorgeous. The gameflow shows that the Bulls were at their best on this night when Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni came into the game. As for the Bucks:
  • Michael Redd put up a Glenn Rice
  • The Bulls shot 44 free throws, the Bucks shot 20. The Bulls won by 13.
  • Ramon Sessions didn't suit up for this one. I do not know why. In terms of people who did play, though, welcome to the league, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute!
  • Before the season started, Bulls fans were saying that Scott Skiles would quickly bench promising young players like Charlie Villanueva and give far too many minutes to Malik Allen. I thought it was an exaggeration, but lo and behold, Villanueva ends up with 9 minutes and Allen gets 20 off the bench. Well Mr. Skiles, enjoy the mediocre roster, you deserve it. Enjoy your 25 wins and being described in the local media as "gritty" and "blue-collar." (In Skiles' defense, Villaneuva was benched after making a lousy attempt at an outlet pass that quickly turned into a Derrick Rose dunk).
III. The Late Game
Got home in time to watch the Lakers beat the Blazers, 96 to 76. It's just one game, but the Lakers defense was nice to see. They were a solid defensive team last year, but they didn't play like this. Andrew Bynum was coming all the way out to the three point line to guard the pick and roll and recovering quickly enough down low, Pau Gasol was challenging shots, and everyone on the Lakers was switching and challenging every shot. All told, Portland shot 34.5% from the field, and only made 8 free throws. Kobe Bryant was so active along the perimeter challenging everyone (particularly Brandon Roy, who ended up shooting 5-15 and had two turnovers), that Vladimir Radmonivic was able to sneak up into passing lanes and ended up with 4 steals. The only Trailblazer players who looked able to get off clean shots were Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez, who were able to move off the ball, score in transition, and score off of broken plays.

At one point, Trevor Ariza made the sort of block that maybe 5 or 10 players in the league can make. It was in the open court, on a layup attempt by (I believe) Jerryd Bayless. Ariza reached from behind Bayless's right side above Bayless's body and across to swat away a left-handed layup attempt, without every making any contact (not even body contact) with Bayless. Huzzah. Ariza is still well behind Kobe in his ability to stay with a player on the perimeter, but his ability to recover and make athletic plays is very cool.

Offensively, the Lakers were a bit sloppy but did enough to win easily. There wasn't very much of the Triangle played at all, as they were taking every opportunity to get out and run, to mixed results (Pau Gasol definitely took advantage, shooting 7-10 on mostly easy lobs and layups). Aside from Kobe Bryant, a lot of guys looked so-so on the offensive end (Kobe was absolutely brilliant, despite 5 turnovers) -- Farmar missed a few easy shots, Andrew Bynum missed a few lob passes (a couple of which from Bryant, hence some of the turnovers) as well as took at least one headscratcher 15-foot jumper and had a couple of botched post moves to the basket.

Also: get well soon, Mr. Oden.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round II - Statistical Odds and Ends

This is kind of the trivia section of my NBA Season Preview. Think of it as little bits and pieces that may shed some light on the shape of the league going into opening night.

I. Pythagorean All-Stars
Anyone who has followed sports for a while, particularly baseball, is probably familiar with the notion of Pythagorean wins. The idea is that a team's scoring differential or efficiency differential (efficiency is just score adjusted for pace) has more to say about how good a team is than its actual record. This is as valid in basketball as anywhere, where the outcome of a close game that involves 90-100 possessions for each team might hinge on one lucky bounce during one of those 180-200 possessions, meaning the winning team didn't exactly prove that it is definitively better than the losing team. Meanwhile, a team winning by 10 or more points generally played better than the team it beat, and wasn't relying on a lucky bounce. Now, we expect lucky bounces in close games to even out over time, so here I want to take a look at teams that were significantly better or worse than their records indicated. I used the season summary from Basketball Reference for the data.

A. Toronto Raptors
Last year, the Toronto Raptors won 41 games, which makes them sound like an about average team. However, their efficiency differential was that of a 49-win team, making them one of the top 4 teams in the East last year. Unfortunately, they went up against one of the other three (Orlando) in the first round of the playoffs. Still, if the Jermaine O'Neal trade works out, we might see this team win 50+ games next year, and make it at least to the second round.

B. New Jersey Nets
The Nets won only 34 games last year, but they were even worse than that record indicates -- putting up the efficiency differential of a 27-win team. We were already expecting this team to be worse this year due to the loss of Richard Jefferson (Yi Jianlian isn't, at this point at anyways, an equivalent replacement), but even if they were exactly the same team we'd have to expect them to win 7 fewer games than they did last year. Combined, these factors make it look like we might see the bottom fall out a little bit, with 20-25 wins.

C. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs went 45-37 last year, but during the season they were actually outscored by their opponents, meaning they might just as well have been a sub-.500 team. I expect them to be improved this year, but now I'm wondering if an effectively 40-win team has made enough changes to win 50 games this year, as I predicted in the previews. As it is, they might end up being a much-improved team and still winning 45-47 games.

D. Utah Jazz
Utah was 54-28, but they underperformed their efficiency differential by 5 games last year. At 59 wins, they could have ended up with homecourt advantage against the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs last year. I'm not sure that it would have made a difference, but it's interesting to consider. With few roster changes, it shouldn't be a huge surprise if a healthy Jazz wins 60 games this year. Unfortunately, Deron Williams has already suffered an ankle injury, but reports are that he won't miss too much time (Williams played all 82 games last year, and has never played fewer than 80 in a season).

II. Small Sample Size All-Stars
Every year there are a handful of young players who look like potential breakout candidates in extremely limited minutes. Here are some such players from last year who might be primed to break out if given some minutes.

A. Ramon Sessions
Ramon Sessions averaged 20.9 points, 7.6 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game in the D-League last year. He also got to the free throw line an average of 9.2 times per game. As an NBA starter to finish out the year last year, he averaged 13.1 points, 13.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds. Here is a list of players who were able to average 13, 13, and 5 over the season last year:

[Blank]

Nobody. In fact, forget about the rebounds, there was no one in the league to average 13 points and 13 assists. The only player to average over 10 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds was Jason Kidd. Similarly, the only players to average at least 13 points and 10 assists were Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash.

Overall, including the games where he came off the bench, Sessions played in a total of 17 NBA games last year (in addition to the 24 D-League games referenced above). In those 17 games, Sessions averaged 11 points, 10.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. That's a more efficient version of Jason Kidd, or a lower-scoring version of Chris Paul.

With Mo Williams now in Cleveland, the only person standing between Sessions and a full-time starting gig is Luke Ridnour.

B. Leon Powe
Powe stood out in a handful of playoff games for the Celtics last year, but he was already looking good during the regular season. In limited time, he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. He's not about to become a starter with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in front of him, but I can see him having another solid season with about 20 minutes per game.

C. Ian Mahinmi
Like Sessions, Mahinmi was a D-League star, finishing his stint with the third highest PER in the D-League. He only ended up playing a total of 24 minutes in the NBA last season, but in that time he racked up 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and shot 50% from the field. There's no way of knowing whether he'll be able to continue to produce consistently at the NBA level, but we might see him get the chance to crack the frontcourt rotation for the Spurs during the first half of the season to keep 36 year-old Kurt Thomas as fresh as possible for the playoffs.

D. Amir Johnson
Amir Johnson averaged 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks (4 blocks!!!) per 36 minutes last year. He's already been penciled in as a starter in Detroit. As in San Antonio, Johnson's early-season minutes here could keep the wear and tear away from Antonio McDyess so he can be ready for the postseason.

E. Brandan Wright
Per 36 minutes, Wright averaged 14.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks last season. I have no idea if Don Nelson will give him more minutes, but fingers crossed! While he has generally been reluctant to play rookies, Nelson has shown a willingness to play some second-year players, with Monta Ellis the most recent example. Then again, it's hard to tell what Nelson might do with frontcourt players who don't shoot the three. He couldn't be bothered to play Andris Biedrins more than 27 minutes a game last year despite excellent production at both ends of the court last year.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part VI - Southwest Division

We finish these division by division previews with what should be, once again, the most competitive division in the league (last year, there were more 50 win teams in the Southwest Division than in the entire Eastern Conference).

WEST

Southwest Division

New Orleans Hornets
It's easy to look at this team's record from last year, and their starting lineup, and immediately conclude that they are a favorite to win the championship. But look a little bit farther -- notice that Chris Paul and David West played in more games than they ever have in their careers, and that a 30 year old Peja Stojakovic played more minutes than he has in all but two years of his career. And then, take a look at the bench. Posey looks like a nice addition, but otherwise you're looking at names such as Rasaul Butler, Melvin Ely, and Hilton Armstrong.

Now, a big part of not getting injured is luck, and the Hornets very well might get lucky and have everyone stay pretty healthy all year again. But if they don't? The dropoff for them when they go to the bench is quite a bit greater than it is for any of the other contenders.

Outlook: All of that said, this team plays solid defense, even when the scrubs are in there. That should keep them in things if and when any of the starters go down. So, while they might not capture one of the top two seeds that everyone seems to expect them to, they could win around 52 games and hopefully be healthy for the playoffs, where the lack of depth won't hurt them.

Players to keep tabs on: Julian Wright could make everything I just wrote about depth moot, by becoming the star of the second unit. He had a decent rookie year and looked spectacular at times in the playoffs. Here's hoping he can build on that.

Reasons to watch: Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler have perfected the art of the alley-oop, and it is lovely to see. Also, Julian Wright can do some things.

San Antonio Spurs
They're not too old, they're not dead yet. The finals will be in an odd-numbered year, so it's hard to bet against them. Plus, they finally added some youth to that bench with Roger Mason Jr. and Salim Stoudamire, two excellent spot-up shooters who might hopefully be able to replace some of the skills that have deteriorated in the form of Robert Horry and Michael Finley. Mostly, though, just don't take for granted how good a team built around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, all still right around their primes, can be.

Outlook: Everyone will ignore them through 3/4 of the season while they go on sneaky little 5 or 6 game win streaks, and then we'll all scratch our head at the end of the season when they've won 55+ games and are at the top of the Southwest Division.

Players to keep tabs on: You know most of these dudes. But Ime Udoka and Ian Mahinmi are the players who will probably need to step up this year. Bruce Bowen isn't what he used to be, and the hope here is that Ime Udoka can pick up where Bowen's been leaving off as a perimeter defender. On the plus side, Udoka's added size gives him the ability to pick up bigger players like Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, or Dirk Nowitzki who would have given Bowen problems. Mahinmi, meanwhile, comes up from the D-League and might be the next great nameless banger to play alongside Tim Duncan (Oberto, Nesterovic, Mohammed, and so on and so forth).

Reasons to watch: Manu Ginobili Euro-Step. Manu Ginobili step-back jumper. And so on, and so forth. He has a unique style.

Houston Rockets
I discussed this team in detail in response to the Artest trade. One thing to take away is in terms of team-building, this is the anti-Hornets in many ways. The Hornets have a team that, when healthy, has well-defined roles and players who are perfect for those roles. They then hope for health, so that the whole house of cards doesn't collapse. The Rockets, meanwhile, seem to plan for injuries more than any other team, with a roster stacked with seemingly redundant parts who can fill in for one another without much dropoff. And for good reason: the team is built around two players (Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming) who are expected to miss around 20 games per season. So, the team is deep in the frontcourt, and with Battier able to play minutes at the two they have depth at the swing position. Note again that not only do they sport redundancy, but also versatility -- most of the players on the team can play two or three positions, and the Artest acquisition fits right into that model. The one question mark, as it was last year, is point guard, where there is quite a dropoff behind Rafer Alston, who himself won't be confused for an all-star anytime. As long as the team is healthy by playoff-time, they'll be fine, but watch to see if anyone can take over as the backup point, or if the Rockets are forced to make a midseason trade to shore up that position.

Outlook: 55-60 wins.

Players to keep tabs on: The rotation at the 4-spot. With Carl Landry, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes, the team was already stocked with similar style power forwards. Now they've added Joey Dorsey to the mix, not to mention the fact that Ron Artest will surely spend some time at the 4. There's no real center on the roster behind Yao, so expect to see Scola/Landry/Dorsey (maybe also Hayes?) to spend some time at the 5, but that's still a lot of redundancy. Even if Yao is out with injury, they'll have 3-4 players who can contribute at center and 5 at power forward.

Reasons to watch: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Dallas Mavericks
The recent kind of odd decisions (trading for Jason Kidd, firing Avery Johnson) have covered up the fact that this is still a very good team. Rick Carlisle's been making noise about having a motion-offense with more ball- and player-movement, which would be a clear change for a team that has been isolation heavy for several years now and a roster full of players who are great at creating for themselves. In theory, this sounds like a good idea -- a more fluid offense and easier shots for everyone. I'm not so certain, though. First off, Carlisle's never had an offense that relied on a lot of passing and off-ball movement, so it's hard to believe without evidence that he'll be suddenly changing his preferred style. Also, there's a little bit of concern for me: even if they can change their offensive style, would they be better off for it?

Dallas is consistently one of the most efficient offenses in the league. Among other things, one of the reasons they're so efficient is their ability to avoid turnovers (5th in the league last year, 6th in '06-'07, 8th in '05-06 . . .). With a team full of efficient jumpshooters who (a) don't make regular forays to the hoop and (b) don't make many passes to set up their shots, there just haven't been a lot of opportunities for Dallas to turn the ball over. If they change this style, it might (maybe?) be less of a physical strain on players, but there's a chance they lose efficiency due to increased turnovers (which might be coming anyways, with Jason Kidd aboard. I guess we'll see).

Outlook: First round playoff exit. They're an excellent team still, but the rest of the West has improved too much, while the Mavs' lack of backcourt depth (check out the roster -- Jose Barea is the backup point right now) might be too much to overcome.

Players to keep tabs on: One of the underrated aspects of the Jason Kidd trade has been that it allowed Jason Terry to return full-time to the shooting guard position, where he is much more effective. At this point in his career, he's not going to have any sort of breakout year or anything, but watch for his three-point shooting percentage to bounce back into the 40's.

Brandon Bass had a surprisingly solid year last year with his ability to rebound and hit mid-range jumpers. He may see less time now that Diop is back, but if he gets some minutes look for him to continue to improve. He's playing for a contract this year, also.

Gerald Green is the type of player who seems like he should be way better than he is. He is an excellent shooter, and has more hops than anyone else in the league, leading to occasional gorgeous finishes. He's has the ability to be a very good rebounder, and he's improved in that area, and he has the athleticism to be an excellent defender. He can break his man down off the dribble and finish at the rim or pull up and use his strong jumpshot. Unfortunately, all of that hasn't added up to a decent player on the court yet. Off the ball, he sometimes seems to stop paying attention if he's not part of the play, and defensively he's been streaky. Because of his skills, he'll still be given a chance here, and he's saying all the right things, but I have no idea if he'll become the elite-level wing that he seems capable of being. Keep an eye on him, though, if he can get it together, he'll be a very exciting player. He is still only 22 years old, as young as a lot of rookies, so all hope isn't yet lost.

Reasons to watch: This will never happen in a game, but last year Gerald Green performed one of the greatest (and most under-appreciated, due to the presence of a big dude wearing a cape) dunks every seen in a dunk contest:




Memphis Grizzlies
Out of curiosity, is Marko Jaric over-compensating? See the list of recent girlfriends, including current squeeze Adriana Lima.

Anyways:

This team exists as a tribute to aesthetic absurdity. There is unproven but extremely promising talent all along the perimeter, and a series of slightly intriguing but low-ceiling question marks inside. Some of the most interesting lineup possibilities are of the 3-guard variety with Rudy Gay as the only forward. I guess this is the positive spin -- you could also look at it as a lot of talent at too few positions. Whatever. Let's start outside: Mike Conley appears to have the skills to be the point guard of the future for this team, and while Kyle Lowry doesn't project to be in the team's long-term plans, he can fill in effectively and is good at crashing towards the basket like a bowling ball. Meanwhile, O.J. Mayo and Javaris Crittenton are both super-talented combo-guard types who will probably spend time at both guard spots. Rudy Gay is a budding all-star at the 3. Then the questions really begin. Hakim Warrick is extremely athletic and fun to watch, but not exactly an established star at the power forward spot. He's joined in the frontcourt by the international trio of Marc Gasol, Darko Milicic, and Hamed Haddadi. Haddadi might be too raw to play much this year, but Gasol and Milicic should do a solid job of defense and rebounding in support of the perimeter scorers on the team.

If Conley can really control the offense and utilize the athleticism of this team, they might be incredibly fun to watch -- Warrick and Gay are fantastic finishers, while Mayo and Crittenton can provide some highlights as well. Given the lack of post scoring on the team, they should once again be one of the fastest paced teams in the league, and provide plenty of high-scoring games.

On an odd note, is this the bizarro Rockets? The Rockets have invested in low-risk redundant but productive (and low-usage) frontcourt players. The Grizzlies have invested in high-risk redundant (possibly productive, but we don't know yet) high-usage perimeter players.

Outlook: The most watchable 20-win team in recent memory.

Players to keep tabs on: Aside from Gay, none of these players has yet proved much of anything in the league. Big things are expected from many of them, and Conley and Crittenton have shown flashes already, but basically they're all unknowns at this point. It seems like the reasoning for the Grizzlies here is that one of these perimeter players will develop into the type of transcendent star that an organization can build around, both on the court and off the court in terms of marketing. It's unclear which (if any) of the players will develop into that, but it should be fun to watch. In a way it is similar to the Lakers acquiring Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum in the same offseason a few years ago -- they were gambling that one of the two could blossom into a star, and if so it would justify both acquisitions. The Lakers ended up with far more than they could have hoped for when Bynum blossomed and Brown somehow got turned into Pau Gasol. Let's see if a similar scenario might ensue for the Crittenton/Mayo backcourt.

Reasons to watch: As I said above, this will be one of the most watchable 20-win teams in a long time. Conley can dribble circles around people and make great passes, Gay, Mayo, Warrick, and Crittenton can fly, and the possibility of seeing any combination of Milicic, Haddadi, Gasol, and Darrel Arthur on the floor at the same time is curious enough to tune in for by itself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part V - Pacific Division

A quick aside before preceding: these previews are meant to be quick introductions to each team for the year. There will obviously be a lot of information left out, and there is always more to say about each team and each player. If you're interested in reading more about a particular team, I would highly recommend checking out the corresponding team blog in the links on the right. I have only linked to the best of the best, and each one is thoughtful, informed, and passionate.

WEST

Pacific Division

L.A. Lakers
They're basically taking the team that coasted through the second half of last season, taking out Ronny Turiaf, and adding a healthy Andrew Bynum. What's not to like, right?

Internal improvement has been a huge boost for the young Lakers over the last couple of years, but this might be the year where we find out how much of the improvement was for real and how much was just a one-year anomaly. Bynum is discussed more than enough, so here we'll look at Luke Walton, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, and Vladimir Radmanovic (aka the "pale ones").

Luke Walton had a bit of a breakthrough in 2006-2007, but came down to earth a bit last year. Last year's results were definitely affected by the combination of Walton's being slowed by injury and his minutes getting yanked around due to the suddenly deep small forward rotation (he played 33 minutes per game in 06-07, and just 23 minutes per game last year). With the return of Bynum pushing Gasol to the four and possibly meaning more minutes for Odom and Bryant at the three, Walton's minutes will probably be just as limited this year as they were last (although there has been chatter of playing Walton at guard recently), so Walton will need to figure out if he can stay effective in limited time. If he can 39% from 3, as he did in 06-07 (actually 38.7%), then he could effectively play some minutes at the guard spot. However, he hasn't shot over 33% in any of his other years in the league before or since 2006-2007.

Jordan Farmar gets a lot of credit for the work he puts into improving his game, and it showed last year as he improved in just about every statistical area. Given his age and experience level, I'd guess he shows even more improvement this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see him get 25 minutes per game and shoot 39% from three.

Sasha Vujacic is a curious case. He just finished his fourth year in the league, and commentators have acted as though his excellent year last year (shooting 43.7% from three and averaging 8.8 points a game in 17.8 minutes) came out of nowhere. If that were the case, we'd have to prepare for a bit of a regression to the mean (maybe his 3-pt% would come back down to his career average of 38%). But if you look a little at his career numbers, you'll notice that he's actually been steadily improving every single year he's been in the league. Shooting close to 44% from three again might be a stretch, but I don't think he'll fall below 40%. Vujacic, much like Farmar and Kobe Bryant, is known for putting in a lot of offseason work, and he's also only 24 years old, so his improvement shouldn't be too shocking. I think a lot of the improvement he's shown, though, also has to do with Phil Jackson reining him in and strictly limiting his role. Sasha has always thought of himself as a point guard, but last year he seemed to really take to Jackson's desired role for him of a spot-up shooter in the offense, somehow managing to put up close to 4 three pointers a game in under 18 minutes. This team is currently too good to really let him experiment as a ballhandler and distributor, so he'll probably stay in his limited role and fill it expertly.

Last year Vladimir Radmanovic played like the player that the Lakers thought they were getting two years ago. His career numbers are somewhere in between his miserable 06-07 outing and his much improved 07-08 outing, and I'd guess his performance sinks back towards his career averages a bit, but not all the way back to his snowboarding year. 38% from three and 42% overall from the field seem like reasonable expectations.

Outlook: If this team were coached by someone other than Phil Jackson, it would be hard to predict less than 65 wins for this team. However, with Jackson at the helm we can expect to see some nights with big minutes for Coby Karl or D.J. Mbenga, or with Lamar Odom or Luke Walton playing point guard, or something along those lines. And, in any case, this team's success will be measure by their performance in the playoffs, and expectations have them going to the finals.

Players to keep tabs on: The UCLA grads will both be looking for breakout years

Jordan Farmar, as discussed above, should continue to improve in this, his pivotal third year. This year is important for two reasons: a 34-year old Derek Fisher will probably play fewer regular season minutes, and Farmar will be playing for a contract extension next offseason.

More than Farmar, though, the player who comes in with the most x-factorness is Trevor Ariza. His style and abilities fit in immediately with the up-tempo second unit when he came over from Orlando last year, and he might be in line for more minutes and opportunities this year. There was talk early in the pre-season of him starting, but he's not the sort of three-point shooter that's needed to play alongside Kobe, Gasol, and Bynum. Also, as maybe the best (behind Kobe) perimeter defender on the team, his ability might be more useful as part of the second unit, when the long arms of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol aren't around to cover up perimeter lapses on defense. Either way, expect him to have a career year, and to show up in a lot of highlight reels.

Reasons to watch: (I was going to put up a short rambling paragraph about how enlightening it is to just watch Kobe Bryant, and specifically his feet, for an entire game, with and without the ball. But these videos are more important, at the moment):





Phoenix Suns
I don't really have a good grasp of what we're looking at here. There's still a lot of talent here, but this obviously isn't the Suns of the last several years. The starting lineup looks to be the same as what we saw at the end of last year, but all indications are they'll be relying more than before on the bench, particularly rookies Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez as well as free-agent signee Matt Barnes, in addition to old faces Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa. This increased reliance on the bench should temporarily ease the annual fears of the ages of Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal, and Grant Hill (and while we're talking about age, I should add in: did you realize Raja Bell is 32 years old?).

The introduction of Robin Lopez might have the biggest effect on playing style here. At this stage in his career, Shaq won't be playing 35-40 minutes per game, even if he weren't in foul trouble (which he often will be). Last year, in a pinch, Amare Stoudemire could still slide over to the center position and bring in Diaw as the 4. Now, Stoudemire might stay at the 4 with Lopez coming in off the bench. By all accounts, Lopez will be a solid defender and excellent rebounder, as well as an efficient low-usage scorer, a la Joakim Noah. However, I'm not sure that he has the skill necessary to set up outside and keep defenders out of the lane as Stoudemire and Diaw do (nor can he be an offensive focus in the post the way Shaq can), so his presence could lead to an offense that is less Nash-dependent when they're in the game together. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though it leads to some questions.

Defensively, I'm tentatively curious. Terry Porter comes in with a recently defensive reputation based on his playing career and his association with the Pistons the last couple of years. In his only head-coaching experience, his Bucks teams had above average offenses and lousy defenses, but that had a lot to do with the players available there. Then again, outside of Raja Bell, none of the Suns starters is really known for his defense, and Stoudemire and Nash are specifically known for their complete lack of defense. Any defensive improvement will probably come from the new additions off the bench.

Honestly, I'm willing to watch and see what happens. Also, I'm curious to see what Amare Stoudemire adds to his game -- his efficient mid-range game was pretty surprising to see last year.

One issue I would like to preemptively guard against: please do not buy in when the slower pace leads to lower scores, leading to commentators saying the Suns defense has "improved." If the defense does improve, we should discuss that. But as it is, D'antoni's Suns, before the Marion trade, were consistently right around league-average in terms of defensive efficiency. That's not elite, but it's not as horrible as some would have you believe -- the fast pace they played led to lots of points being scored, but per possession they were about average. If the pace slows down this year, it won't automatically mean that the defense is better.

Outlook: They should still make the playoffs, with between 44-49 wins, but anything beyond the first round seems dubious.

Players to keep tabs on: I'm looking for a bounceback year for Matt Barnes here. He's no Shawn Marion, but he can run the floor, hit the corner three, and defend a few positions. As long as Dragic can be an effective passer in that second unit, Barnes should have no trouble fitting in offensively and defensively.

Reasons to watch: As a scorer, Amare Stoudemire is about as dominant as it gets. Just don't watch him on defense . . ..

Golden State Warriors
I wrote at length a couple of months ago about Monta Ellis in the context of the upcoming season, and then he went and fell off a moped.

Big picture, I claimed that his accident (and Monta's originally lying about it) wouldn't be a problem, but that was before I had realized that Warriors ownership was a tad insane and petty, and now the accident has cost Monta around $3 million. Hmmph.

Anyways, I think Corey Maggette will do well in this context, and the team will be better than one might imagine given that they lost Jason Richardson and Baron Davis in consecutive offseasons and will now be without Monta Ellis for a chunk of this season. There is still a bit of a question mark at point guard (as of this writing, undrafted rookie will be the starter on opening night), but I see them getting it figured out.

Outlook: 38-45 wins, I suppose? Having Steven Jackson at the two instead of Monta (Ellis is supposed to play the point when healthy) could help quite a bit defensively. Meanwhile, on offense, while the loss of Baron Davis hurts, I see Corey Maggette finding lots of opportunities to score lots of points.

Players to keep tabs on: Brandan Wright played really well in limited time last year, and I expect to see a lot more of him this year. If he can get on the floor for 20 minutes a game, the Warriors as a team will really benefit.

Reasons to watch: Brandan Wright!

Sacramento Kings
Kevin Martin might be the best perimeter scorer in the league. That sounds absurd, right? But, with his ability to shoot from the outside, get to the rim and finish strong, get to the free throw line, move off the ball, and use off-ball screens, I'm not sure there's any guard in the league who can score as much as efficiently as Martin. Statistically, his closest comparison might end up in the Hall of Fame. Last year, there were only two players who made more than 1.5 three pointers per game and 7.5 free throws per game -- Kobe Bryant (1.8 threes, and 7.6 free throws) and Kevin Martin (1.8 threes, and 8.2 free throws), and Martin accomplished the feat much more efficiently. Stylistically, he's pretty unique -- he has an odd shot that looks like it takes a long time to get off but that he is able to shoot from anywhere at anytime without trouble, and he can get into the air and finish strong in ways that seem surprising given his skinny frame.

This year, for the first time in his career, Martin will be the center of the offense whenever he's on the floor. He's already shown that he can handle the increased usage and still score efficiently, now we should expect him to compete for the scoring title (he finished 6th in the league last year in points per game).

Outlook: Offensively, this team should be solid. We've discussed Martin, but the rest of the perimeter is also reliable offensively -- Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia, and John Salmons (not to mention that Bobby Brown and Quincy Douby both looked solid in summer league play). The frontcourt is also stocked with decent players who can rebound, pass, and score. Where this team will struggle, though, is on the defensive end. They were 25th in the league on defense last year, and there's no reason to expect them to be any better this year without Ron Artest. A competent if not elite offense plus a bottom five defense should be enough to get them about 34 wins and a lottery pick.

Players to keep tabs on: John Salmons had a career year last year, but given his age (28) it's probable that this was more of an anomaly than a sign of permanent improvement. Further, he played significantly better as a starter than he did as a reserve. Unfortunately, playing behind Kevin Martin and Francisco Garcia means he'll have to figure out how to play effectively off the bench, or he's due for a bit of a letdown year. In his favor, though, he was at his best last year when he had the ball in his hands and was allowed the leeway to create his own shot (he wasn't as effective off the ball). With Artest gone, he should get plenty more opportunities to do that.

Reasons to watch: I don't know if he'll get many minutes, but I'm really curious to see Mr. Donte Greene play.

Los Angeles Clippers
The biggest issue for the Clippers this year will probably be depth. As mentioned here before, both Baron Davis and Marcus Camby have a history of missing some games during the season, and things get pretty thin behind them.

When they are healthy, though, this team might be somewhat intriguing. In recent years, one of the biggest problems for the Clippers has been creating high-percentage shots on offense. This was especially the case last year with Elton Brand out, as Los Angeles ended up with the worst effective field goal percentage in the league. While the loss of Corey Maggette hurts in this department, Baron Davis is easily the best point guard they've had in the Dunleavy era (sorry Shaun Livingston!), and he should help to create some easy opportunities for a team of otherwise inefficient shooters. Defensively, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby should get plenty of blocked shots while covering up for lapses by Al Thornton and the Davises, allowing the latter to gamble for steals. The end result of all of this should be a pretty solid defensive unit.

Outlook: 38 wins, I suppose. One curiosity to keep an eye on is Eric Gordon -- before last year he was considered a potential top three draft pick. He played through a wrist injury last year and, since his most developed skill is his jump shooting, this hurt his stock and he slid to the Clippers. We should see soon enough if the Clippers ended up with a steal in the draft, finding the prolific perimeter scorer that they've needed for many years, or not. At just 6'3", if he can't score like Ben Gordon then there could be trouble . . ..

Players to keep tabs on: Al Thornton had a solid rookie year and is developing as a scorer. With Corey Maggette out of the way and Marcus Camby aboard at the 4, Thornton will hopefully flourish in his natural position at small forward. There is a bit of a problem, though -- Thornton's year was solid for a rookie, with the assumption that there will be a lot of improvement going forward, perhaps through improving his three point shooting. However, Thornton was a very old rookie, and turns 25 this December, so there's not necessarily as much potential for improvement as we might expect from a second year player.

Reasons to watch: This team has changed so much since last year, that it will be interesting just to check out how all the pieces come together. Also, you never know when Baron Davis will decide to dunk on someone's face.

A call for better sports-related metaphors

I don't like sports metaphors in office environments. I just don't. They're tacky and unimaginative and played out. And honestly, I don't need to be seeing an out of shape cubicle jockey in pleated khakis talking about getting slam dunks or hitting home runs.

But, if I'm honest with myself, it's hard to see sports metaphors ever just disappearing from office life. I guess that need for drab imagery that has no potential to offend anyone is just too important. So, I'm starting a campaign for newer, better sports metaphors. Once upon a time, slam dunks, covering bases, hitting things out of the park, taking a page out of someone's playbook, and so on must have sounded new and fresh. Well, they don't anymore. So here, courtesy of fruithoopz, is the new fresh shit. Practice and recite in your office -- I promise you will cover up your incompetence and get promotions from people excited about . . . well, they're not sure about what, but it sounds like something that can be compared to sports, so they're for it. Anyways, feel free to add your own in the comments.

Open Field Tackle: This is a phrase for when you identify and address a problem before it is able to cause much damage. For instance, you just sent a mail advertisement off to the printers and then you realize that there is a glaring typo in large font. So you call up the printers before the ad has begun printing, and you get the typo fixed in time. You made an open field tackle.


Jab Step: If your organization isn't quite convinced that a particular direction is correct, they might have some customer focus groups or something to get an idea of how people will respond. In basketball, from the triple-threat, you can make a jab step and see how your defender will respond, thus setting him up for the next move you make.

Turnaround Bank Shot: Not as flashy as a slam dunk, but fundamentally the right move. If, in a morning staff meeting, someone suggests, "hey, how about we give out loans to people who couldn't possibly repay them, and then turn around and sell that debt to unregulated shadow institutions?" You might respond: "No, let's minimize our exposure to bad debt and keep our cash payout reserves at the accepted levels to be FDIC insured." You've just made a turnaround bank shot.


Stolen Base: You've only done enough work to begin a project, but suddenly get yourself into scoring position when no one's looking. For instance, you say "hey Rosie, I'm kind of swamped, can you do these reports for me this week?" She then goes ahead and does the reports, but when she gets up to go to the bathroom, you pick them up and drop them off at your boss's desk, saying "phew, just barely finished them! Anyways, here's those reports boss, have a good weekend!" You've just stolen a base.

Bringing the Safety Into the Box: You continue running a part of your business that is losing money in order to keep the competitor from gaining a complete monopoly in the sector. For instance, see Microsoft attempting to acquire Yahoo! in order to compete with Google.

Step-Back Jumper: You choose to release a product in what's normally considered off-season in order to benefit from the lack of competition. For instance, releasing a new video game in February rather than at Christmastime.

Pull Up Transition Jumper: A risky decision that hasn't been thought out and ends up costing your organization. For instance, the CEO of a desalinization company hears that Ethiopia is the next great booming economy, and immediately makes the decision to open 12 new distribution centers throughout Ethiopia and pours all of the company's resources into the effort. Four months into the Ethiopia campaign, though, it becomes clear that people in landlocked countries aren't that into desalinization products. The CEO had shot up a pull up transition jumper.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part IV - Northwest Division

WEST

Northwest Division

Utah Jazz
Deron Williams is absolutely one of the best point guards in the league, but seems to be playing out his career in the shadow of Chris Paul. He's improved every year he's been in the league, and he's been healthy so far throughout his career. I expect him to have his best year yet, and make his first all-star team.

Recently, the Jazz, like the Lakers, have been considering moving a versatile, highly paid forward to the bench, and it looks like a good idea. Andrei Kirilenko has struggled a bit fitting in alongside a healthy Carlos Boozer, but really expanded his game last year in order to be more effective along the perimeter, particularly by improving his three-point shooting. Still, forcing a supremely talented athlete to adapt his game to become, at best, an average starting small forward seems like a waste. Kirilenko has shown the ability to be a unique game-changing force on both ends of the floor -- occasionally creating shots for himself and others on offense as well as exploiting weakside lapses by the defense, and on defense creating turnovers and blocked shots while roaming the halfcourt and surprising unsuspecting offensive players by arriving at wacky angles. For a sample of his uniqueness, notice that he and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only two players to appear on this list more than once.

Unfortunately, with Boozer and Mehmet Okur in the frontcourt, and Deron Williams taking over shot-creation responsibility, Kirilenko's been moved out of the spots where he's most effective. Replacing him with C.J. Miles (no, not the Pilipina softcorn star, the basketball player!) in the starting lineup gives him a chance to play to his strengths while coming off of a very strong bench along with Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. Who knows -- Kirilenko might even replace Matt Harpring's role of unskilled, bruising, energy white guy with his own funky brand of skilled, bruising (don't let his slender frame fool you), energy white guy.

Outlook: Deep, talented, experienced, and still young (every player who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last year was under the age of 28), this Jazz team has the ability to go deep into the Western Conference playoffs. They have some defensive issues, though, and I'm not confident they can overcome the lack of a shotblocker inside. Still, they should be fun to watch in the regular season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them win 60 games.

Players to keep tabs on: We've already discussed Kirilenko. C.J. Miles will also be relied upon for consistent production for the first time. Finally, Kyrylo Fesenko and possibly Morris Almond will be making the jump into the rotation this year, and were incredibly promising in the D-League last year. Fesenko in particular might find a few minutes a night for himself along Paul Millsap as part of a strong second-string defensive front-court, which could alleviate some of the defensive problems from last year. Also, Fesenko is a really silly interview (youtube him!), so it'd be great to see him on the court regularly.

Reasons to watch: I really can't think of the right words to describe Kirilenko's game.

Denver Nuggets
The big Nuggets storyline this summer was the Marcus Camby trade. It seems reasonable to assume that that move was the beginning of a rebuilding session, what with Allen Iverson in the last year of his contract and all. I'm not sure I see that interpretation, though, since Kenyon Martin and Nene are both untradeable and have contracts that run for several more years. In any case, a less heralded move was the acquisition of Renaldo Balkman, who adds a much needed dimension of pointy angularity to the round faces of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. He also provides chaos on the defensive end, which should help quite a bit in a defense that will be even more dependent on turnovers (the Nuggets were 6th in the league in creating turnovers last year, causing 14.1% of opponent possessions to end in a turnover) with the loss of Camby. It's generally not known or mentioned, but for much of last year the Nuggets were one of the better defenses in the league -- they fell apart defensively during the last quarter of the season or so, but still ended up 10th in the league in defensive efficiency. It's unclear how much that will change without Camby -- the defense often funneled players towards him for blocked shots and that strategy won't really be tenable with Nene taking over -- but I get the feeling that his loss might be overstated by those who are just focusing on his blocked shot and rebound totals.

In addition to his defense, Balkman, along with Kenyon Martin, might find themselves particularly important in an offense surrounded by skilled scorers (Carmelo, AI, Nene, Linas Klieiza), since they can get offensive rebounds and convert them into points, as well as run the floor and finish efficiently.

The attention early in the season will be on Nene -- when healthy he's the only Nugget who can create from the low post, but he hasn't been healthy often. I think he'll have a solid season, though.

Outlook: This team is absolute chaos, in both good ways and bad. A team composed almost entirely of one-dimensional scorers loses two of its better role players (Camby and Eduardo Najera) in the offseason. When this team wins, it will look transcendent, and when they lose, it will look dysfunctional. My best guess is that the two outcomes happen about equally often, and the team ends up 41-41 and misses the playoffs (that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch, though. The possibility of the transcendent win is too good to ignore). Sadly, this could result in new rounds of Iverson-bashing: check out the adjusted plus/minus, notice he's by far the most important player on this team.

Players to keep tabs on: J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza, and Nene. Nene I've already explained. J.R. Smith just signed a new contract, so he's surely a part of the Nuggets' long term plans. He has all the ability to be a great 2-guard (not a star necessarily, but an exciting second scorer), but he's prone to the occasional inexplicable decision on offense as well as an inability to translate his athleticism onto the court at times. Despite that, he's already turned himself into an efficient scoring threat, particularly because of his shooting from the three-point line. There are several areas on offense that he still needs to improve, but the real focus for him -- and many Nuggets -- this year will be defensive rebounding. Smith is athletic enough to be able to average 5 or 6 rebounds a game, but with Camby down low he's been content, so far, to leak out in transition for easy buckets rather than crash the boards. So this is the year where we see if players like Smith and Anthony really can be solid rebounders who were just playing a role in a defensive scheme built around Camby's rebounding, or if they "are who we thought they were." Draftexpress' profile of Smith has more information, and reflects my feelings as well. The profile at shamsports is also pretty accurate, if a bit harsh. One last note: Smith and Iverson played well together in the backcourt last year -- could this lead to Smith starting with Iverson playing the point? That arrangement worked swimmingly last year, with Iverson shooting better, turning it over less, and getting more rebounds, assists, steals, and free throw attempts when playing alongside Smith and the team outscoring opponents by 10.1 points per 48 minutes (overall on the season, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 3.7 points per game, so the Iverson/Smith combo was a big improvement. The team started games with Iverson and Anthony Carter in the backcourt, with whom the team went +.6 points per 48 minutes).

The case for Kleiza is a little hazier here. The aforementioned Najera was a role-player extraordinaire last season, and he's gone now, but Kleiza has been improving his game each year he's been in the league. The problem is that his most developed skill is as a scorer, a skill which happens to be available in abundance on this team. For this team to improve despite the loss of Najera and Camby, Kleiza will have to become an effective defender and rebounder.

Reasons to watch: J.R. Smith and Chris Anderson could have a dunk competition at halftime. Smith is also good for an occasional 3-point bomb from 5 or more feet behind the three-point line. Anyone with the balls to keep taking that shot when he's playing alongside Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson is worth watching.

Also, we know their games well, but it still feels like there is something under-appreciated about the offensive games of Iverson and Anthony. Iverson, like many ballhandlers, can get anywhere on the court at any time. What makes him special, though, is his ability to finish in the paint over players much taller than he is, and to finish through contact. His mastery of Gallilean physics and trajectories, as well as 3-dimensional geometry and glasswork, is every bit as impressive as that of Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. Meanwhile, watching Anthony on offense it becomes clear quickly how skilled he is at getting the ball in the right place and using footwork, jab steps, and a quick first step to create space and score easily. He takes a moment to size up the defender, moves quickly to take advantage of any sort of incorrect positioning, and uses an array of fakes when necessary. It's really an intellectual approach, and we could all learn a bit from it. Anthony still hasn't developed as a passer, so a sort of two-man zone on him (with one player playing him close and another waiting back near the basket) is usually enough to stop the entire Nuggets offense, but he's still fun to watch one-on-one.

Portland Trailblazers
Easily the most hyped team of the year so far, and with good reason. Along with Detroit, Utah, and the Lakers, the Trailblazers are loaded with young players who look to have an excellent future. You already know about Brandon Roy (who is worth every bit of the hype around him, plus more) and Lamarcus Aldridge (who might not be, but whose game fits in well with new addition Greg Oden), and there's plenty of attention being given to newcomers Greg Oden and Jerryd Bayless. So let's discuss Spaniards Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. I've heaped praise on Fernandez already during the Olympics, but to recap: Fernandez is a great scorer who can shoot with range, create his own shot, and is excellent moving off the ball and finding easy baskets for himself. He's also a capable passer and a streakily good defender who has the length and quickness to become a top-flight defender. With Martell Webster slated to be out with injury until December, there's a good chance that we see Fernandez as a starter at the beginning of the season. Huzzah!

As for Rodriguez -- he's less of a known quantity, but he's exciting because of the flashes he's shown. He's a brilliant ballhandler and creative, talented passer, but he's yet to find any sort of consistent playing time or performance since coming to the NBA. Still, he's entering just his third season and is only 22 years old (the third season is particularly important for first round picks because they're eligible for their first contract extension at the end of the year). Further, he's playing with his countryman Fernandez, who he has experience with from playing on Spanish National Teams, so hopefully the familiarity will give him a bit of a foothold.

Outlook: If all goes well, this is a very deep team -- they're adding Oden, Fernandez, and Bayless to a team that won 41 games last year. That's three players who could possibly contend for rookie of the year (I would put more money on Oden or Fernandez, but Bayless isn't exactly chopped liver). With health, they could win 48-52 games. But we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, we need to actually see the team play a regular season game . . ..

Players to keep tabs on: Travis Outlaw has improved every year he's been in the league, and had a bit of a breakout season last year as a scorer off the bench, playing an important role in the Blazers' success. Unfortunately, his ideal role is as a sixth man providing offense off the bench, and on this team, with the depth that they have, it's not certain that Outlaw will get the minutes or shot attempts that his skills demand. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to his changing role, and whether he can be effective in different situations. Can he become a consistent defender? Cut more to the basket on offense? Become a better finisher?

Reasons to watch: Rudy Fernandez is Spanish for sexy. Sergio Rodriguez is the reason youtube exists. Jerryd Bayless spends as much time above the rim as he does below it. Greg Oden makes his own teammates' jaws drop:

Minnesota Timberwolves
Picking up the pieces after the Garnett trade, Minnesota made a bit of a splash by trading to acquire Mike Miller and Kevin Love at draft time. Mike Miller, with his ability to get to the basket off the dribble as well as move off the ball and get to open spots along the three point arc, should fit in nicely in the backcourt with Randy Foye (who can create jumpers off the dribble and shoot the three but doesn't really get to the hoop) as well as help space the floor for Al Jefferson down low.

This team was absolutely awful defensively last year, though, and neither Miller nor Love really helps with that. Al Jefferson, while a decent on-the-ball shotblocker, doesn't really get any blocks coming from the weakside, and Kevin Love doesn't seem to be the answer in terms of help defense down low. Both lack the height to guard true centers (last year, opposing centers shot 55% against the Wolves). Behind them, the third big in the rotation is Craig Smith, at 6'7", and even Ryan Gomes (also 6'7") spent time at the 4 last year. So, really, this team is not equipped at all to defend the paint. Furthermore, all of the bigs lack the sort of quickness required to effectively guard the screen and roll. On the perimeter, of the top four guards on the team (Foye, Sebastian Telfair, Mike Miller, Rashad McCants), only McCants has shown the ability to be an above-average defender (Miller is about average, Foye a little below average, and Telfair has been horrendous so far in his career). The team's "best" defenders both play the small forward position, and it shows, as the 3 was the Timberwolves' best defended position as a team last year. Without help down low from the 4 and 5, though, it doesn't matter much.

Outlook: An average at best (the addition of Miller might bring them up to average at this end) offensive team who might have the worst defense in the league? That sounds like a recipe for 25-28 wins.

Players to keep tabs on: I'm done waiting for Sebastian Telfair to become something. So I guess I'll say Al Jefferson here. He already had his breakout season last year, he has a well-developed offensive post game and he does a good job getting offensive rebounds. But now, he needs to prove he can perform at the defensive end as well. Last year, he gave back all of his offensive production and then some at the defensive end. If he can improve that effort, then that 25-28 wins projection will be far too low. Also, Corey Brewer needs to show he was worth that lottery pick.

Reasons to watch: Mike Miller's ongoing gross hair contest with Sasha Vujacic.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Boooooo!!! Stole a team from Seattle, stole a team name from Golden State's mascot! Boooooo! Boooooo!!

This team has hella first round draft picks in upcoming years. They also have Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook. They also spent their lottery pick on centers in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006, and have, so far, nothing to show for it. This is all to say that this team will probably not be very good this year, but might be better in the future.

Outlook: This team played at the fifth fastest pace in the league last year, which covered up a lot of offensive shortcomings. I would bet that they run even more this year, and hopefully move Durant to the forward position. A year of development from Green as well as the addition of Westbrook along with a full healthy year from Chris Wilcox should open things up for an older and more experienced Durant. He was extremely inefficient last year, but he showed some improvement near the end of the year, and has the practice habits and ability to grow into the star he's supposed to be. A lineup of Westbrook, Green, Durant, Desmond Mason, and Chris Wilcox, while sporting some serious defensive holes, could definitely run the floor and put a lot of points on the board. Still, it's hard to see them winning many more than the 20 games they won last year.

Players to keep tabs on: This team might as well be called "The Oklahoma City Kevin Durant and other guys." Meaning: This season could be considered a success if Durant improves and shows he can be a star in this league, even if the team flounders.

Reasons to watch: Kevin Durant is the anti-Maurice Jones-Drew. If you don't believe me, try Google-Imaging each of them.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part III - Southeast Division

Before I proceed, just want to draw your attention to this game by game preview, which is absolutely brilliant.

EAST


Southeast Division

Orlando Magic
A 52 win team from last season returns most of its key contributors, adding Mickael Pietrus. I complained a while back about what seemed like excessive contracts that were forcing the Magic to shed role players. A summer ago, it was signing Rashard Lewis to a max deal (6 years for $118 million) -- in order to sign him they were forced to renounce Darko Milicic. Obviously, Lewis' addition was important and really helped the team on the court, and I wasn't privy to the negotiations so I don't know if Lewis could have been had for less. Still, losing frontcourt depth can't be a good thing (the Magic had great fortune with respect to injuries, so this didn't hurt them much). This summer, they signed Mickael Pietrus to a deal that left them unable to re-sign Keyon Dooling. Defensively, this is an upgrade, but there's a slight problem since Dooling was able to spend time as point guard, which Pietrus cannot do. So the Magic start the season with journeyman Anthony Johnson as the main backup to Jameer Nelson.

I'm assuming Pietrus can spend some time at the 2, 3, and even the 4 in a pinch, which should help keep J.J. Redick glued to the bench once again. Further, the return of Tony Battie along with Pietrus' ability to fill in at the 4 should move Brian Cook further down on the bench, which helps (sorry Brian!).

Did you realize that in four years in the league, Dwight Howard has never missed a game? He has averaged 36 minutes per game, 82 games per year. I find that remarkable. His ability to never miss games is vital to this team, as their whole strategy on both ends of the court is built around him. He is a wonderful player who can grab a lot of rebounds and finish strong and whose presence on the court helps in ways that don't always show up in the boxscore (here at fruithoopz, we say he has a lot of gravity - in this case exemplified not by his own stats but by his teammates' 3-point percentages), but I do worry about his still under-developed offensive game. Last year he averaged 1.3 assists and 3.2 turnovers per game, turning the ball over on more than 16% of his possessions. Furthermore, although he led the league in dunks and got 77% of his shot attempts as dunks or layups (which is very good), he only shot 38% on his non-dunk or layup shots (which is not that good: compare to Shaquille O'Neal - 45%, Amare Stoudemire - 47%, or Andrew Bynum - 43% -- the Stoudemire numbers are even more impressive given the fact that he added a set-shot from 15 feet out to his repertoire).

Outlook: Another solid year, but I still can't see them getting out of the second round of the playoffs.

Players to keep tabs on: Usually in this part I mention someone who might be in line for a breakout season. In this case, though, I'm paying attention to Hedo Turkoglu, who just had his breakout season, and might be due for a letdown. Last year he had a career year, the sort of year that he is unlikely to be able to match. The Magic might have been wise to trade him in the offseason while his value was high, but now we'll see if he can keep up the brilliant performance from last year (I'll be rooting for him -- I remember thinking he looked like a potential star if he could ever consistent playing time in Sacramento). His ability to create took a lot of pressure off of the Magic's so-so point guards as well as kept the ball out of the 59% free throw shooting hands of Dwight Howard late in games. The Magic will count on him again this season, although Rashard Lewis probably has the ability to step up should Turkoglu falter.

Reasons to watch: Mickael Pietrus, for the super-athletic plays as well as the incomprehensible turnovers.

Washington Wizards
The team spent the offseason re-signing Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, but both are now injured again (Jamison's injury appears minor and he shouldn't miss any time). Brendan Haywood, who had a career year last year after Etan Thomas went out with heart troubles, has now torn a ligament in his wrist and will be out for a while. Caron Butler is a fantastic player, but he'll need some healthy teammates if this team is going to succeed.

Outlook: I'm having trouble figuring out what to think of this team.


Players to keep tabs on: Andray Blatche made the step forward into becoming a rotation player last year. Here's to hoping he can build off of that success and have a breakout season this year. With Haywood out, the Wizards will be looking to him even more to step in and produce, even with Etan Thomas back in the mix.

Reasons to watch: Antawn Jamison has an odd collection of floaters and weird angled runners that are surprisingly effective. The fact that he's 6'9" only makes his shockingly effective style more strange. Every shot that goes in seems miraculous, but he makes most of them.

Atlanta Hawks
I fell a bit in love with this team over the last couple of years -- they reminded me a bit of the D-Miles/Q-Rich/Maggette/Lamar Odom Clippers from several years ago. Then, last season they drafted Al Horford who slid into the Elton Brand role, and traded Shelden Williams (kind of the Olowkandi of the bunch, if we stick to the analogy) for Mike Bibby. In the east, that's just enough to slip into the playoffs, making the Hawks' season look much better than it actually was.

In a way, it sort of makes sense that Josh Childress and Salim Stoudamire couldn't stick around. They were just too pragmatic, in a basketball sense, for a Hawks team that thrived on anarchic athleticism. Somehow, coach Mike Woodson preferred Marvin Williams' bombastic inconsistency to Josh Childress' quiet, heady, efficiency in the starting lineup. Somehow, that led to Williams having a bit of a breakthrough season, finding his game and producing with some efficiency. Stoudamire should thrive in limited minutes in San Antonio's spot-up friendly offense, and Childress will own Greece and return to the NBA as a hero.

Outlook: Joe Johnson has his best year yet. Josh Smith continues to be confusing because of his unlikely combination of abilities and flaws. The team is exciting to watch but ultimately not quite good enough to compete, they miss Josh Childress and they miss the playoffs, and the wrong person/people gets blamed at the end of it.

Players to keep tabs on: The whole team, honestly. Everyone has something to prove. Acie Law and Marvin Williams need to prove that they're not busts and it's their job to make sure future stories about the Hawks don't mention Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Mike Bibby needs to prove he's not washed up. Joe Johnson needs to prove that he belongs in the conversation of the best offensive players in the game. Al Horford needs to prove he's one of the best young frontcourt players in the league. Josh Smith needs to prove he's more than a curiosity. Speedy Claxton needs to prove he can still play. And so on, and so forth.

Reasons to watch: One day, years from now, we will look back and feel lucky that we were alive to see Josh Smith play basketball.

Charlotte Bobcats
This team is better than it seems, but I'll feel ill if they make it to 40+ wins this season and Larry Brown gets all the credit. Sean May's missing all of last year to injury was disappointing since he seemed primed for a breakout season. If he's healthy and in shape this year, he'll be a great help, and he should make it possible to move Gerald Wallace to the small forward position full-time, where he's less likely to incur yet another concussion. With Jason Richardson, Gerald Wallace, and Matt Carrol in the rotation at the 2/3, Adam Morrison will hopefully stay on the bench, sending text messages to J.J. Redick.

One major concern I have as an observer: Raymond Felton can really run, and though I haven't seen much of D.J. Augustin, I'm guessing that he'll often be the quickest player on the floor. With those two as the main point guard options, and Wallace and Richardson on the wings, it seems like the team's best bet on offense is the fast break. Unfortunately, I don't recall ever seeing a Larry Brown team insist on pushing the pace, despite the fact that his teams have often been excellent defensively.

Outlook: 38-42 wins.

Player to keep tabs on: Raymond Felton has the ability to be a solid starting point guard in the league when healthy. As it stands, though, he has been about average so far. If, this year, he shows an improved jumpshot and finishing ability (perhaps he should watch videos of Tony Parker?) the team can make the jump into the playoffs.

Reasons to watch: If Troy Polamalu was a basketball player, he would be Gerald Wallace. Make it a point to watch him whenever you can this season.

Miami Heat
If the Olympics were any indication, Dwyane Wade is definitely back and healthy. The addition of Shawn Marion last season and Michael Beasley and James Jones in the offseason gives the team added depth, athleticism, and skill at the 2/3/4 positions. Unfortunately, unless Udonis Haslem becomes a way-undersized center, the team is looking at a horrendous group of centers and having Mark Blount as the starting center on opening day. Meanwhile, the point guard rotation isn't as thin as the center rotation, but it is filled with question marks. Big things are expected of Mario (Superintendent) Chalmers, but he's a rookie. Chris Quinn, the D-League call-up, might become a solid part of the rotation. Marcus Banks has shown flashes as a defensive point guard, but isn't dependable on the offensive end. And Shaun Livingston, if he regains his pre-injury form, is potentially a star. But if he ever does regain his form, it probably won't be this year.

Outlook: Lots and lots of appearances on the "top 10 plays of the night," and a battle with Atlanta to stay out of the bottom of the division. I could be way off on this, though, it's hard to tell.

Players to keep tabs on: Chris Quin. Solid but unspectacular, if he can stay in the rotation, then all he needs to do is keep getting the ball to Wade, Marion, Beasley, Haslem, and Dorrell Wright.

Reasons to watch: Dorrell Wright on the fast break.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part II - Central Division, CONTINUED

EAST

Central Division

Indiana Pacers
Last year, Indiana was the third fastest paced team in the league, behind only Golden State and Denver. They also attempted more three pointers than every team besides Golden State and Orlando. And, despite many weaknesses on that end, they were able to throw out a league-average defense. Despite all the running and gunning, the Pacers were an inefficient offense -- and a huge reason for this was a lack of a legitimate starting point guard. So, in the offseason, they went out and traded oft-injured (and, even when healthy, not fast-paced) Jermaine O'Neal for T.J. Ford (and Rasho Nesterovich), in a trade that made sense for both sides. T.J. Ford suffered in Toronto not only from being an injury risk but from not being Jose Calderon, the efficient distributor. In Indiana, he'll be free to run at all times and dominate the ball for stretches. Pacer fans should be clear from the outset that Ford is more Iverson than he is Nash. That should be fine -- in Indiana, for much of the time he's on the floor all four of the other players will be able to shoot the three, and the pick and roll game won't be much of a factor. Ford will be able to attack at all times, and with his speed, the results should be fun to watch, if not always effective. Given the high speed and the acquisition of Ford, drafting the plodding Roy Hibbert is a bit of a head-scratcher, though.

Outlook: If healthy, this team could be a .500 team. They do lack depth, though, and will struggle to stay with better teams. There is also little margin for error -- if Ford, Danny Granger, or Mike Dunleavy Jr. are injured for any period of time, this team tanks.

Players to keep tabs on: Granger, Dunleavy Jr., and Marquis Daniels. In order: Granger is already well-known and the face of the franchise, improving his game each year. Can he reach all-star status this year? Mike Dunleavy Jr: after years of disappointment as a high draft pick bust in Golden State, he found his niche in Indiana's offense and became a bit of a scoring machine, establishing career highs in FG%, 3-point percentage, and free-throw attempts. So is he for real, or does he come back down to earth this year? And finally -- Marquis Daniels looked like a budding star as a member of Don Nelson's Mavericks, but has been mired in streaky mediocrity ever since. Indiana's style seems like a good fit for him, but he continued to struggle last year. For whatever reason, I continue to hold out hope that he'll become the dynamic scorer and defender that he looked like as a rookie.

Reasons to watch: Besides Granger and Ford, there's not much to tune in for here.

Chicago Bulls
The good news: a team expected to go deep into the playoffs last year ends up with the number one draft pick, and doesn't lose any of their talented players. The bad news: last year's dysfunction was partly blamed on players playing without the security of a contract extension, and now Ben Gordon comes into the year playing on a one-year Qualifying Offer. Hmmn . . .. (Sidenote: I'm actually not worried -- Gordon will be just fine this year and he'll get a payday next summer).

This team really is loaded with young talent. There are more guards than there are available minutes for them to play, and that would be true even if they benched Larry Hughes. Thabo Sefalosha is exciting, skilled, and long, but he may end up completely out of the rotation.

In the front court, I'm hoping the absence of Ben Wallace and Scott Skiles means lots of minutes for Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Both could be extremely productive this year.

Outlook: They are absolutely a better team than their 33 wins from last season made them look. How much better, though? If Luol Deng shoots over 50%, then they could win 45 or so games. Is that conditional enough?

Players to keep tabs on: Tyrus Thomas should finally get a chance to prove that he can produce in extended time, so he's first on this list. Luol Deng is either a solid but unspectacular swingman (last year), or a budding star (2006-2007), depending almost completely on whether he scores efficiently. We've mentioned here before that shooting percentages are one of the more volatile individual statistics, and last year might have just been a regression to the mean for Deng after his outstanding 2006-2007 campaign.

Reasons to watch: TYRUS THOMAS!

Milwaukee Bucks
The worst defensive team from last year hires Scott Skiles, a defensive stickler who is kind of unimaginitive on the offensive end.

Yawn.

It should be interesting to see whether coaching is enough to get a team with Michael Redd, Charlie Villanueva, and Andrew Bogut to be a great defensive team.

Having Richard Jefferson aboard should mean an improvement over last year. Unfortunately, over the last few years in New Jersey Jefferson's defense has gotten worse and worse -- we'll see if he can turn that around and become the stopper (or just slower-downer) this team needs.

The other big story is of course the loss of Mo Williams. I talked at length about his impact on the Cavs, but in the case of the Bucks I think the biggest result is playing time for Ramon Sessions. He came on strong at the end of last year, and now should have a chance to play 25+ minutes per game.

Outlook: This team can't be very good. They might compete for the worst record in the East.

Players to keep tabs on: Ramon Sessions was called up from the D-League late last year and made a huge splash, averaging 11 assists per game in 10 games in April (including a 20 point, 24 assist effort against Chicago followed by 25 and 14 against Minnesota in the very next game, as well as a tight game against Washington in which Sessions made a steal with a couple of seconds left in the game and hit the game-winning buzzer-beater with Gilbert Arenas' hand in his face). It seems clear that his ascendance is what made Milwaukee feel comfortable sending Williams away. So, can Sessions keep it up for a whole season, or was his performance last year a late-season mirage?

Reasons to watch: I got nothing here. I'm sorry. The only reason I'll be tuning in will be to watch Ramon Sessions' development. I know next to nothing about rookie Joe Alexander, so I guess that's another reason to tune in.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part II - Central Division



Continuing the Fruithoopz pre-season NBA roundup, we move on to the potentially very competitive Central Division. As it stands, there are two title contenders, at least two legitimate Most Improved Player candidates, one MVP candidate, three new head coaches, and the first overall draft pick, all in this division.

(Click here for the Atlantic Division)


EAST

Central Division


Detroit Pistons
On the surface, it looks like new coach, but same old Pistons. Michael Curry takes over a team that is still led by the old core of Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and Rasheed Wallace. But the Pistons have actually re-built their entire core while continuing to contend at the top of the Eastern Conference -- something that's supposed to be impossible in the salary cap era. As the starters age over the next few years, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Afflalo, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson will be stepping in to take their places.

Outlook: They're still one of the two best teams in the improved East.

Players to keep tabs on: Amir Johnson was already my early favorite to win Most Improved Player this year, even before he was named a starter for the upcoming season. He'll struggle at times staying on the floor because of foul trouble, and there will probably be some growing pains, but he can do a lot of great things on the court. Stuckey, Afflalo, Maxiell, and even Kwame Brown are worth paying attention to this year to see how they improve their games during the course of the year -- the Pistons are doing an excellent job of developing their young players.

Reasons to watch: Amir Johnson is, besides being an important young player, also incredibly fun to watch. Also, check out what draftexpress says about Maxiell: "One of the few players in the League who will really try to dunk everything when he sees a hole. Won’t hesitate to go through defenders to get at the rim." And that is despite the fact that he has a well-developed mid-range game. 

Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland's big offseason move was acquiring Mo Williams from Milwaukee. Pretty much ever since Cleveland drafted Lebron James, they've been looking for a suitable perimeter scorer to play alongside him and take some of the shot-creation burden off. Ricky Williams wasn't quite right, and Larry Hughes was a complete disaster. So now begins the Mo Williams era in Cleveland.

The desire to have a shot-creator play with James is not unreasonable. Last year, James scored or assisted on a whopping 56% of the points the Cavs scored while he was on the court. The only players who played significant minutes last year that could create shots besides Lebron were Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes, and Hughes was woefully inefficient last year, shooting 37.7% from the field including 34.1% from three. Hughes is gone, and Delonte West has proven to be an adequate fill-in as a spot-up shooter if Boobie Gibson (44% from three) is not in the game, and Wally Szczerbiak can also hit from outside when he's in the game). Howev
er, finding a perimeter player who can create his own shot has still been a goal, and that's where Mo Williams comes in.

Williams is a solid outside shooter when he needs to be, but last year he also took a full 22% of his shots from inside the paint (for comparison, Boobie Gibson took 11% of his shot attempts from inside), and only 25% of the points he scored from inside were assisted, meaning m
ost of his inside scoring came from dribble forays into the paint. He didn't only create scoring opportunities for himself -- he averaged 6.3 assists per game last year, and he instantly becomes the second best passer on the Cavs.

The question is, how exactly does Mo Williams fit in to
the Cavs offense? Does his taking pressure off of Lebron make Lebron a better or more efficient player?

The idea that a player's efficiency declines somewhat as his usage increases has been alluded to several times in previous posts. In his book Basketball on Paper, Dean Oliver introduces a tool for looking at an individual player's usage-efficiency relationship, known as the "skill curve." Below is a modified version (I've inverted the axes, because it makes more sense to me this way) of the skill curve for Lebron James over the last three seasons (click the picture to enlarge).


League average efficiency last year was 107.5 points per 100 possessions, so it's clear that Lebron is able to stay very efficient even when taking on a huge portion of the offense (average usage would be around 20%, since there are 5 players on the court). But it does seem like the team would be better off if Lebron didn't have to take on a particularly large usage rate. Last year, he led the league in usage rate at 33.5 -- Kobe Bryant (31.4), Tracy McGrady (30.4), and Carmelo Anthony (30.2) were the only other players with usage rates over 30.

Let's first clear up what Mo Williams is not: Mo Williams is not a great defender. He is not an elite scorer. He is not a possible all-star. On most teams, he wouldn't be a great option as a #2 scorer.

But Cleveland isn't most teams. They have one of the best defenses in the league, even when Gibson is in the game, and Williams is probably a better defender than Gibson. And with Lebron producing enough for two players, all Williams needs to be offensively is good enough to keep Lebron from having to take on more than 35% of the offense while he's on the floor.

Last year, Mo Williams had a very similar usage rate to Larry Hughes. The difference was what he did with the possessions, as he was able to produce 111 points per 100 possessions, as opposed to Hughes' 96 -- that leads to a better than 15% increase in production from the Hughes days (Hughes didn't play most of his minutes at point guard, but I'm assuming Williams will be asked to fill a similar role when it comes to scoring, although Williams' ability to find open teammates will be a welcome addition). Given better results, Lebron might even look to funnel more of the offense to Williams, as he was willing to do whenever Hughes or Gibson got hot last year. Given Williams' skill-curve, it would appear he could handle some small increases in usage:



(I'm a little dubious about Williams' ability to be such an efficient offensive player when using 30% of the team's possessions, but looking at the data for the past three years, it's happened 29 times and he only had 7 bad games out of those 29). Additionally, playing alongside spot-up shooters like Gibson and finishers like Anderson Varejao, Williams' ability to gather assists should reduce the amount of work Lebron is forced to do.

There are still some lingering questions about the newish-look Cavs. First off, Larry Hughes was a much better perimeter defender than anyone left on the roster. Delonte West is passable,
and Williams can guard smaller point guards, but I'm not sure how a playoff series against Chauncey Billups would look. Hughes didn't offer as much defensively as he took off the table offensively, and Cleveland's ability to rebound is still strong, so this is a minor concern.

More pressing, though, is the question of the Cavs offensive system - or, complete lack of one. Williams' contributions on offense come through having the ball in his hands, creating off the dribble, slashing and passing. He is a decent spot-up shooter, but that's not what they acquired him to do. So, what does a Cleveland offense look like when Lebron is playing away from the ball? The reason the scenario is so hard to imagine is that it doesn't ever happen. Watching Cleveland games last year was mostly about watching Lebron dribble the ball for 20 seconds and then go to the hoop or shoot a fall-away three pointer -- it's remarkable that he was able to score and distribute as efficiently as he did given the sorts of opportunities he was getting from the offense. Coach Mike Brown is going to have to set up some sort of offense that allows Lebron to work off the ball, setting up in the mid-post or cutting to the basket or something that either gives him easy scoring opportunities or draws defensive attention away from shooters. If Williams can have the ball in his hands enough to average 5 assists, then the whole offense should benefit.

Outlook: They should start better than they did last year, with Pavlovic and Varejao at training camp and starting the season. Beyond that, I'm not convinced they're good enough to beat Detroit or Boston in a 7-game series. If the offense can improve (in the ways outlined above), then there's a shot. As long as Lebron James is healthy, the team should win 5-10 more games than the 45 they won last year, which would be just enough to James his first MVP trophy.

Players to keep tabs on: Sasha Pavlovic looked to be coming into his own as a solid defender and dependable outside shooter in 2006-2007. He held out for a contract coming into the 2007-2008 season, and then when he got back he seemed off all year. A lot depends on which Pavlovic shows up this year -- if the 2006-2007 version appears, that will be huge for the Cavs on the defensive end, as he can guard perimeter players very well and is big enough to handle guards that would otherwise outmuscle Cleveland's otherwise small backcourt. Also, watch for D-League call-up Lance Allred, if he makes the team. 

Reasons to watch: Lebron is the obvious answer. But did you realize what a funny dude Delonte West is?



To be continued . . . (Sorry, this post was already too long as it is, but Indiana, Milwaukee, and Chicago coming up next!).