Saturday Starting Five: Underground storylines before the season tip

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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. Today’s topic? Five underrated storylines as we head towards the season.

The Orlando Motivated Monstrous Machine

A team with Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and J.J. Redick comes into the season as almost a nondescript non-entity. A team that reached the Finals a year ago enters the season as an afterthought. And a team that annihilated its opponents in the preseason enters without a peep (because it’s preseason). So why is no one talking about the Magic? I’ve already breached this subject elsewhere, but let me sum up: due to the circumstances under which they won the East in 2009, and given the improvements made to the Eastern powers, the window has to be considered shut for the Magic as we know them.

But what if we don’t know them? A particular element of the assessment I made of the team as based on their physical makeup. There was no big signing, no huge trade, no substantial upgrade. Vince Carter got older, Jameer Nelson got Jameer-Nelson-ier, etc. The Magic are the same team they were last season, in terms of their physical makeup. But mentally? That’s where we might see some changes.

Most notably, even having only talked to Dwight Howard briefly this summer, I can tell you there’s something different about him. It’s not the workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, instead, it’s the way he’s reacted to the hype over the Miami Triad. That level of anger that we constantly seek from LeBron? Howard has it. And with Vince Carter having another year in the system, Ryan Anderson coming into his own, and Stan Van Gundy finally relenting and pushing Rashard Lewis to the three from time to time, it’s entirely possible that this team mentally is ready to come out guns blazing. Then again, coming out guns blazing doesn’t do them much good if they run out of bullets in May. This analogy must either end or include a played-out Arenas reference, so…

The Hard Line Between Fan And Fanatic

Putting LeBron’s return to Cleveland on national television was their second bad idea. Putting it in front of an actual crowd of Cleveland fans was their first. If LeBron’s Twitter escapade showed anything, it’s that there are people out there to which the common rules of decency we all share do not apply. There are those of us out there who simply have no problem with crossing that line between “Okay, the guy used to wear the same color jersey I like and now he doesn’t, and that sucks”  and “I am now going to venture into outright racism, but first let me make a stop in Death Threat Village Boutiques.” This situation is a time bomb, and for some reason, the league is convinced it’s just good television. Even if you think the odds of a Cleveland fan or fans going berserk at the game is infinitely too small to be worried about, why are you exacerbating the situation by marketing it? “Tune in to watch LeBron possibly have a molotov cocktail thrown at his head for switching zip codes!” Cheering and booing is a great part of sport. But the projection that has been emulated by Cleveland fans, blaming James for an array of ills he had nothing to do with is a dangerous element in a highly tense situation.

There’s hate, there’s sincere hate, then there’s whatever nerve James tapped into this summer, be it racial, ethical, cultural, or otherwise. There’s a time bomb and it’s ticking, set to go off when the King returns to Cleveland.

The Top Seed in the West Is Up for Grabs

No, seriously. The Lakers are winning the Western Conference Finals, of that you can be sure of, but the top seed in the West and thereby the best chance to knock off LA? That’s still in the air. The Lakers aren’t just going to coast the second half of the season, they may struggle out of the gate with Kobe Bryant still recovering, Bynum on the shelf, and whatever random injuries they pick up. Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, Denver if Melo sticks around, any of these teams could sneak in and take home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It wouldn’t be that hard to get past LA. It’s getting past everyone else that is the trick.

Again, LA may not win the West’s top seed because they know they don’t have to. Rest is more important than dominance. They no longer have to shoot for 72. The Heat are taking care of that runaway hype machine for them. And while they’re resting their bones, another team may set themselves up to try to have a Game 7 on their floor if push comes to shove. The rest is just prayer.

New Ownership Takes Direction

Ted Leonsis has lists of all the things he’s changing. New Warriors owner Joe Lacob is already making dramatic plans for change in Golden State. The Pistons will be under new ownership from a mogul. And the Hornets? Well, the Hornets are still George Shinn’s and no one is happy about it, least of all Shinn. The Warriors will be interesting from the perspective of whether they can defend at all with Keith Smart at the helm. Alternative approaches might yield some results there, considering the talent they have.

But New Orleans bears watching. If Shinn gets more desperate to sell the team, he may look to drop the value. Which would mean, you know, trading a superstar. Like Chris Paul. Oops. Meanwhile a new ownership group in Detroit may look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, then look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, and then things could get awkward.

Ownership changes create instability. The question will be how much, in a year that promises to be unstable regardless.

Exceptional Exceptions

There’s nothing in the NBA that can make up for the loss of a superstar. Back in the days of league-determined compensation, Cleveland and Toronto would have received picks, and, well… okay, that’s the thing. Riley managed to gut that team so completely to rebuild it they couldn’t even be punished with compensation. But the one thing those teams did get back is a big ol’ massive trade exception. Which is going to allow them to go in a few directions.

The most attractive one is to pick up  a monstrous expiring contract as part of  a multi-team trade that can net them picks, young players, and let them dump off the rest of their teams. These two squads need a clean slate, as painful as that is for fans, and this is the best way to go about it. When February rolls around, don’t be surprised if two teams that got rolled in free agency are heavy in discussions.

Enes Kanter counters Kevin Durant on Thunder organization, ‘those cats’

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Kevin Durant – criticizing the Thunder organization in third-person tweets that seemingly were intended to come from an alternate account – wrote, “Kd can’t win a championship with those cats.”

Of course, Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter piped up:

The Durant-Russell Westbrook relationship has obviously gotten the most attention. But Kanter has repeatedly painted himself as a foil to Durant, piggybacking off the Warriors star’s infamy.

I wonder whether Thunder management also views Kanter as family – or whether the team might try to dump his hefty salary and avoid the luxury tax.

Three questions the Denver Nuggets must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
40-42, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: Denver snatched up Paul Millsap on a 3-year, $90 million deal. They also re-signed Mason Plumlee to a 3-year deal worth $41 million. In June they swapped out Donovan Mitchell for Trey Lyles. Drafted Tyler Lydon, Monte Morris, and Vlatko Cancar.

THREE QUESTIONS THE NUGGETS MUST ANSWER:

1) Who is going to pass, and when, and how much? After adding Paul Millsap and re-signing Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets have a plethora of passing big men to choose from. We all know that Nikola Jokic is the future of the center position in Denver, so that gives you at least three big men to choose from in the offense. However, as we’ve seen on teams with great passing players before, it’s possible to get into the habit of over sharing the ball at the detriment of simply putting it in the hoop.

Plumlee is probably going to be in a major backup role on this team if everyone stays healthy, so that could simplify things a bit. Still, you have the potential here of things getting a little overworked when it gets into the hands of the big men, so making sure they understand when to stick to the sheet and when to play jazz will be important. We’re all excited to see Millsap and Jokic play together but it might take a few weeks against live competition to sort out the passing lanes.

2) Will there be any semblance of defense? Denver finished just 29th last season in defensive efficiency rating. Kenneth Faried is still somewhat of an issue on that end, and despite what some statistics suggest, Plumlee is not a good defender. Jokic and Millsap should help that out a little bit, but much of this team remains the same from last year.

The question will be in the continued development of the young players, particularly Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, and whatever you can squeeze out of Will Barton on the defensive end of the floor. For as “sneaky” as this team is going to be when it comes to the playoff race this season, I still believe that defense will be an issue. Think of the Portland Trail Blazers teams of the last few years and how much they have had to be a stellar offense of team if only because their defense has been abysmal. The Nuggets might slot right into that archetype this season if they aren’t careful.

3) What are they doing with Kenneth Faried? There has been a lot of chatter around the league wondering if very Faried is ever going to get traded. The question, of course, is whether he has any value with his cap hit and whether that is still a smart thing for the Nuggets to do.

Faried had a statistical down season last year, if only slightly, but in his move to a bench role he was effective as an offensive weapon. Certainly, if he remains in that role next season he will be a wrecking ball against some of the backup lineups that get trotted out in the NBA. However, he does have the third-highest salary on the team and it is a question whether he will ever fully develop into a more complete player as he heads into his seventh season.

The question of what to do with Faried isn’t just about the trade market. It’s also about, if he stays, what kind of role he has and what work he has to do on a team that needs to strengthen its defense if it wants to be in the playoff race.

PBT Podcast: Warriors, Lakers, Pacific preview with Mark Medina

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The Golden State Warriors are a juggernaut, the Mt. Everest the rest of the NBA is trying to climb this season.

Nobody is on that level yet, but the Lakers look like a team with a good foundation — and the ability to draw free agents — who could challenge the Warriors in a couple of years. That is, if Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram can live up to the hype.

Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News — a Warriors beat writer who used to cover the Lakers — joins me to discuss those two teams and their coming season, as well as the Clippers, Suns, and Kings.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Michael Beasley: “I’m literally just Carmelo on the left side of the floor”

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Michael Beasley recently signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks for the veteran minimum. Hopefully, this is just the start of an interesting year with the Knicks. I think you know what I mean.

Speaking to reporters this week, Beasley had lots to say about his potential new role with New York, his interplay with Carmelo Anthony, and his new weight loss.

Specifically, Beasley spoke of how long he had known Anthony and how much he had mimicked his game off of the star on the left side of the floor, saying, “If you watch my game, really watch my game, my jab series, all that, I’m literally just Carmelo on the left side of the floor.”

Since Kevin Durant has apparently set the offseason tone for athletes being frank with reporters, Beasley did say that he was not as great on help side defense as he could’ve been in recent years. However, he said that he wasn’t as bad as people made about to be, and it appears he is going to try to make that something to focus on this season.

Beasley has also lost about 20 pounds — it appears he has cut out sugar and red meats — but the most interesting thing he said to ESPN’s Ian Begley was about his offensive production.

Via ESPN:

“I’ve came in and out of this league. Every year my per-36 [minute average] has been top of the league. And still everybody looks at me as a bust. I just want an opportunity to play more than 15 minutes. And you know if I play more than 15 minutes I’m going to score more than 15 points. And if I can do that for 82 games, that’s an All-Star level. I don’t know. I’m just talking. I just want an opportunity to play basketball. I just want the respect I deserve. Not for what I can do in the future but what I’ve done in the past. And I just want a fair opportunity, a fair chance, a fair shot to play basketball.”

It’s not immediately clear what kind of fair shake Beasley wants here. True, he played less than 30 games in two of his last three seasons in the NBA. However, that was preceded by six seasons of at least 47 games a year. We do know who he is at this point in time, and there is a large swath of game tape and statistics that can be analyzed to prove it.

It is also interesting that Beasley brought up his per-36 numbers. It’s true that Beasley has been an okay scorer when looking at those numbers out of context. But per-36 numbers are not a direct correlary to how effective a player is on the floor. Indeed, even when he was playing starter-level minutes, Beasley’s best numerical seasons are spread all over the place when you take a look at his per-36 production.

Meanwhile, Beasley has had only one season out of nine where he had a positive value over a replacement player. That was his sophmore season with the Miami Heat at 0.2. Five of those seasons he’s taken a larger percentage of his shots from 16 feet to just inside the 3-point line than he has from 0-3 feet. He’s a career 39% shooter on those long jumpers, and 63.5% from that close-in range.

Would it be great if Michael Beasley somehow turned into a strong driving, hard rebounding, diving and passing pick and roll man? Yes. That is exactly what this Knicks team — and any team, frankly — could use.

For now, it appears it’s more likely we end up with the Beasley who says he is a carbon copy of Carmelo — long 2s and all.