The Saturday Starting Five: Your Season Assured

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Our opening topic?

Five things you can count on in the NBA this and every year (except next year when we’re locked out because that’s totally going to happen.).

#1: At least two teams are going to completely exceed all expectations.

Startling, I know, but in a league as dead-set predictable as the NBA, this is actually worth mentioning. Last season the Bobcats were considered by many to be one of, if not the worst teams in the league. This despite Larry Brown’s penchant for overachieving with lesser parts. Granted, pundits couldn’t see the addition of Stephen Jackson coming down the pipeline, but the fact is that last year, just like this year, the Bobcatss were slated to be terrible. Now the Cats might actually be terrible, but it’s still good when you’re rolling down those teams and dismissing them to stop and ask “Are they actually that terrible?” Because when spring rolls around and that team’s in a playoff race, it’s going to seem so obvious that they’d be good.

Oh, and a side note, every columnist, pundit, and blogger is praying that the team they think is terrible won’t be the one to exceed expectations. I personally am dreading if Darko Milicic is actually a viable center, Kurt Rambis actually plays Kevin Love and Wesley Johnson is any good. I’m going to look dumb. Like, really dumb. Exceptionally stupid. Worlds O’ Dumb.

#2: One team’s going to bottom into nothingness.

Perhaps you don’t remember this, but the Nets weren’t supposed to be that bad last season. No kidding. They weren’t going to be title contenders, or anything, but a nice reasonable near-.500 record was expected. Instead, they just lost and lost and lost. I watched several of those games early on, including the Miami buzzer beater loss. And you could just feel that cloud descend over them. It would follow them for almost the entire season.

Think last season was an outlier? Chicago went from an Eastern Conference favorite to giving Scott Skiles a pink slip on Christmas. This happens. Consistently. And there’s almost no way to see it coming.

It’s going to happen to a team we don’t suspect. Minnesota should have been the worst team in the league last year. It took an extraordinary plummet by the Nets for them to be second worst. And that may happen again this year. There’s no real way you can see it coming, either. Heck, it could be the Heat. That’s how tentative this league is. (It will not be the Heat.) So keep that in mind while you’re talking up how your team could make the playoffs.

#3 A mid-teen drafted rookie will blow us away.

10. Paul George
11. Cole Aldrich
12. Xavier Henry
13. Ed Davis
14. Patrick Patterson
15. Larry Sanders
16. Luke Babbitt
17. Kevin Seraphin
18. Eric Bledsoe
19. Avery Bradley
20. James Anderson

One of those guys is going to be much better than we expect. It may be one of the guys 20-plus, like Darren Collison last year, though Ty Lawson qualifies. One of these guys will be better than we expect, much better. It’s only natural. There are so many misses in the top 10 usually, that someone’s going to slip, and when you slip, you can slip by handfuls. Of those options, it’s hard to identify the easy one. But then, each year it’s hard to identify. My money’s on either Patrick Patterson or Larry Sanders, but wouldn’t it be ridiculous if the Celtics landed themselves another great point guard? Or if Cole Aldrich was, actually, you know, good?

Just be prepared for one of these guys to make a huge jump.

#4 At least one coach is cashing one of his final paychecks.

My favorite fired coach story of the past few years was Scott Skiles. The Bulls fired him on Christmas Eve. Think about that. Oh, hey, it’s the holiday season. A season of love and peace. Hey, Scott, we got you a present! It’s the curb! It’s all yours! And we got you this boot to get you there! I mean, seriously. Who does that? The answer is “probably the same people who get into a shoving match with a coach who they later lame duck for about six months after they shouldn’t have hired him in the first place anyway.”

The point is, before the calendar hits 2011, we’re going to see a coach released back into the wild. Sometimes it’s a long time coming, sometimes it’s a reactionary move that speaks to the front office’s short leash. Jay Triano is one that comes to mind, if the team once again comes out with a terrible defensive rating. Whoever suffers element #2 above is also a strong candidate.

It’s sad that we know someone’s going to lose their job this far in advance, but we do. This is the NBA. It has benchmarks like every other league. And Christmas is the time for coaches to exit, stage right.

#5 An MVP candidate will come out of nowhere.

Carmelo Anthony really did have a strong case for the first two months of the year last year. Then Amar’e Stoudemire made a really strong case towards the end of last year. Those are two more predictable candidates, but they’re still outside of the Big 4 (LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Dwight). With two candidates (sorry Chris) on the same team, there are more spots open (with one already awarded to Kevin Durant automatically).

It’s one of the best parts of the season, a player making a huge leap that suddenly makes you wonder if he’s the best. For all the disappointing injuries, suspensions, team turmoil, and this season, CBA talks, there are bright spots, and watching players make leaps to elite status is one of them. I for one, am ready for it. 24 Days, kiddos.

24 days.

PBT NBA Power Rankings: Thunder, Pacers climb into Top five

Taj Gibson, George Hill, Paul George, Solomon Hill
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Sure the top three in the chart remained the same, while the Thunder and Pacers round out an interesting Top 5. However, the real drama is at the bottom — can the Sixers get their first win Tuesday when they face the Lakers?

source:  1. Warriors (18-0, last week No. 1). This week, Draymond Green became the first Warrior with back-to-back triple doubles since Wilt Chamberlain — Jerry West is right, in this system Draymond is a top 10 player. No Harrison Barnes for at least this week (sprained ankle) and the Warriors head out on a seven-game road trip Monday. Will that mean a loss?

source:  2. Spurs (14-3, LW 2). Tim Duncan is doing exactly what you hope an elite, aging player does — use fewer shots but use them efficiently. The Spurs don’t have great individual shot creators, but their commitment to ball movement and running action through Duncan or LaMarcus Aldridge at the elbow (both great passers and smart players) makes up for it, and they have the eighth best offense in the NBA.

source:  3. Cavaliers (13-4, LW 3). Cleveland is still the top team in the East, but LeBron James looks at those two teams above them in these power rankings and knows Cleveland isn’t near that level of execution. (Especially on defense in the first half of games, they coast.) So he called a team meeting after a loss to Toronto. He’s right, but getting Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back in the next couple months will help.

source:  4. Thunder (11-6 LW 5). Winners of four in a row, plus Kevin Durant is back — and he is knocking down threes at a 47.1 percent rate last season. On the road at Atlanta and Miami will test that win streak this week.

source:  5. Pacers (11-5, LW 9). They are outscoring teams by 11.9 per 100 possessions their last 10 games. Frank Vogel on Indy’s play: “We’ve had a good, healthy belief in this plan all year. We didn’t know how long it was going to take before it got going, and we knew it had the potential to catch fire. We’ve gotten a little bit hot of late, but we haven’t really accomplished anything yet.”

source:  6. Heat (10-5, LW 4). They still have the second best defense in the NBA this season (just ask the Knicks after last week) but that will be seriously tested this week hosting the Thunder and Cavaliers back-to-back.

source:  7. Raptors (11-7, LW 7). They had won four in a row, including over the Clippers and Cavaliers, until the Suns got them on Sunday.That’s a testament to Kyle Lowry and the offense, because with Jonas Valanciunas out the defense has struggled, and that will cost them at some point.

source:  8. Mavericks (10-7, LW 6). The Mavericks have a team true shooting percentage of 55 percent in their past 10 games, eighth best in the NBA. That is a testament to coach Rick Carlisle, because outside Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams this team is struggling to space the floor with their shot.

source:  9. Bulls (9-5, LW 8). Before the season the thought was Fred Holberg would improve the Bulls’ offense but would they still defend enough for him. A month into the season Chicago has the sixth-ranked defense but the 26th ranked offense. Tom Thibodeau was an offensive genius?

source:  10. Hawks (11-8, LW 10). They went 2-2 last week but the wins were quality ones — against Boston and Memphis. They are doing it with a top 10 offense on the season and great play from Paul Millsap, but things have flattened out some the past few weeks.

source:  11. Hornets (10-7, LW 16). They have outscored their opponents by 6.3 points per 100 their last 10 games, going 7-3. In the past this team has struggled with Al Jefferson out, but they picked up wins last week thanks to Frank Kaminsky and Tyler Zeller stepping up. Big tests with Warriors and Bulls this week.

source:  12. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). Boston is forcing turnovers on 19.2 percent of opponent possessions, which is an insane rate. They will try to keep that going when they head to Mexico City for a game there this week against the Kings.

source:  13. Grizzlies (10-8, LW 19). Must follow NBA writer/podcaster Nate Duncan had an interesting idea: Is it time to consider Zach Randolph going to the bench and playing the five behind Marc Gasol, then Memphis goes smaller with a little more shooting at the four? Not a move they can make mid-season easily (they need the four who can shoot better), but something to watch going forward.

source:  14. Jazz (8-7, LW 18). They have five of their next six at home after a road-heavy start to the season (although the Warriors coming to town isn’t really comforting). The defense is still top 10 but the offense has shown signs of life in recent weeks, which is a welcome change.

source:  15. Clippers (9-8, LW 17). The last couple games this team has looked more like its old self, like it’s breaking out of its doldrums, like Sunday beating Minnesota. When Pacers coach Frank Vogel was asked about so many teams hanging around .500 in the NBA and who would break out, he quickly pointed to the Clippers.

source:  16. Magic (9-8, LW 20). Scott Skiles has finally thrown in the towel on the Elfrid Payton/Victor Oladipo pairing (Oladipo is coming off the bench), which he had to do – the team is -12.9 points per 100 possessions when they are on the court together. The Magic have won three straight.

<source:  17. Suns (8-9, LW 15). Their defense has struggled, especially with Tyson Chandler out, but they have the fourth best offense in the NBA in the last 10 games, scoring 106.5 points per 100 possessions. Chandler used to be an offensive boost (because of his solid picks and good hands on the roll) but he hasn’t been this season in Phoenix.

source:  18. Timberwolves (8-9,LW 21). I’ll admit that I’m an not the biggest Zach LaVine fan, particularly when he is at the point, but for all his flaws it’s better to give him minutes than Kevin Martin when he can’t shoot (and he is shooting 27.6 percent overall and 23.8 percent from three his last 10 games).

source:  19. Pistons (8-9, LW 14). Andre Drummond is still putting up beasty numbers, but Stan Van Gundy called out his defensive effort in the Pistons’ losses this past week. They have a four-game homestead coming up, with all the teams below .500.

source:  20. Knicks (8-10, LW 12). Losing four in a row hasn’t cooled Kristaps Porzingis fever much in NYC. As will happen in Phil Jackson’s version of the triangle, the Knicks are the slowest paced team in the NBA over the past 10 games, and this team could use a few easy transition buckets.

source:  21. Wizards (6-8, LW 13). They went 0-4 against other teams in the second tier of the East last week. Their biggest problem is a bottom 10 defense, but second is John Wall turning the ball over on more than one-in-five possessions he ends, the highest rate of his career. Marcin Gortat is not having fun anymore.

source:  22. Trail Blazers (7-10, LW 24). It remains the Damian Lillard show — the Blazers’ offense is 14.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. He can reliably create shots for himself and others, and he is the only one (C.J. McCollum helps but it’s not the same).

source:  23. Rockets (6-10, LW 26). The coaching change didn’t inspire them to play better transition defense, it’s still a mess. Their wins last week — the Sixers by two, the Knicks without Carmelo Anthony in OT — did not impress. Patrick Beverly back in the starting lineup does help.

source:  24. Bucks (6-11, LW 22). The good news is Jabari Parker looks better every day and has been throwing down some huge dunks (just ask Kevin Love). The bad news is John Henson seems to have taken a huge step back this season — the Bucks are -16 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court.

source:  25. Kings (6-12, LW 25). The kings got one win with DeMarcus Cousins out, but that just makes them 1-7. His absence is part of the reason George Karl continues to jerk the lineups around. At least Rajon Rondo is putting up numbers.

source:  26. Pelicans (4-13, LW 27). The Pelicans are playing better of late and Ish Smith’s play at the point guard spot gets a lot of credit for it. He’s not the long-term answer the Pelicans, he’s just less of a disaster than the guys who have been in that spot before this season.

source:  27. Nuggets (6-11, LW 23). Losers of six in a row and things don’t get easier as they head out on the road for their next five. This might be the part of the season where the Nuggets start to really fall back.

source:  28. Nets (4-13, LW 28). They have played hard and hung around in games, then picked up a win against Detroit. But can they get one “one the road” Friday in Manhattan against the Knicks (who have struggled of late)?

source:  29. Lakers (2-14, LW 29). Kobe Bryant didn’t want a Derek Jeter-style farewell tour, but he’s about to get one anyway starting in Philly Tuesday. One thing to keep in mind during the tour: the Lakers have the second-worst record in the NBA, they only get to keep their pick come June if it’s in the top three.

source:  30. 76ers (0-18, LW 30). While they have yet to get a win the effort has been there and teams have had to come from behind to beat them as Memphis did Sunday (Philly just doesn’t have the talent once other teams crank it up). Does the losing streak end Tuesday when they host he Lakers?

Magic end NBA’s longest winning-record drought

Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris
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The Magic beat the Celtics yesterday, lifting Orlando’s record to 9-8.

A minor accomplishment in the grand scheme? Yes.

A big deal for the Magic? Absolutely.

Orlando hadn’t had a winning record in more than two years – the longest active period for an NBA team to be .500 or worse.

The Magic’s last winning record was 3-2 in 2013, when Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Jason Maxiell were starting. They followed that Nov. 6, 2013 win over the Clippers with an off day then dropped three straight. Orlando hadn’t seen a winning record since.

Until now.

A three-game winning streak since Scott Skiles changed his lineup has the Magic tied for eighth in the East. They can finally experience the small bit of optimism and confidence that comes with a winning record. It’s not much, but it’s more than they could have said for years.

To put the drought into perspective, here’s how many days each team had gone through Saturday since its last winning record. If you don’t already know the drill, keep scrolling – and scrolling and scrolling – for Orlando.

magic winning record

Watch Kobe Bryant’s entire retirement-announcement press conference (video)

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Kobe Bryant reflected, told stories and showed his emotions.

For nearly 25 minutes, the Lakers star talked about his pending retirement. It was pretty cool.