Author: Matt Moore

2011 NBA Draft

5 Preseason Observations


1. The disconnect isn’t necessarily obvious. If you watch preseason, on the surface, there’s not much outside of the number of minutes for starters between regular season and this. I mean, the game is fundamentally the same. But the speed and intensity differential is startling, and you’ll see the shift for small moments with the key players putting themselves in a higher gear. It essentially means that most of the time, even when you see something that is fundamentally good or bad, you have to understand that there’s just very little connection between this and what we’ll see starting October 30th.

2. So in that vein, very little should be made of the Hornets, on either side. A 3-1 record would indicate that they’re actually putting some things together, but if you watch the games or look at the box you can tell that they are severely struggling. But on the flip side, Eric Gordon hasn’t played, and Anthony Davis sat out their Friday night loss for rest.

But the concerns are mostly in that the offense looks like quite the mess. Yes, Gordon is going to help, but there are concerns about Greivis Vasquez who has been charged with running point guard, and the small forward position is still a huge question mark. The results with the big lineup featuring Roben Lopez, Anderson, and Davis have not been good. In large part, the Hornets just don’t seem to have a whole lot of talent offensively.

But again, it’s preseason.

3. Jonas Valanciunas for the Raptors had an awful opening stat line but made a jump in his second game. The off-the-box stuff though, stands out nicely. He’s a quality rotation defender and aggressive at blocking shots. He’s got both good instincts under the basket and a little bit of savvy. He’s going to have growing pains, but you don’t get a sense watching him that he’s just completely lost, like some other top-five-pick big men of the last few years did, even in preseason.

4. The Lakers bench had better be saving itself.

5. Teams who appear sharp: Miami, Denver, San Antonio, Golden State.
Teams who do not appear sharp: Washington, Charlotte, Portland, the Clippers, and OKC’s bench.

But again, as always, it’s preseason.

Chris Paul to make preseason debut Sunday

Chris Paul
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Chris Paul is back in action. After offseason thumb surgery for an injury sustained in Team USA practice, Paul was only cleared for basketball activity in the last week. But late Friday night, the Clippers announced that Paul’s going to get run in the Clippers’ preseason game Sunday:

Paul, who was medically cleared for full contact three days ago, is expected to make his preseason debut Sunday, Oct. 14 when the Clippers take on the Miami Heat at Mercedes-Benz Arena in the second matchup of the 2012 NBA China Games.


Paul doesn’t need a lot of time, and it’ll mostly be just to get the rust off him most likely. But it’ll be good to give him time with Jamal Crawford and some of the new bench bigs just to develop chemistry. Eric Bledsoe has been electric in the preseason so the Clips have the depth to operate. It just comes down to how much time Paul thinks he needs to knock the rust off.

The good news is barring setbacks, this means Paul should be great for the season opener.

NBA Season Preview: Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl watches his team play against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of their NBA Western Conference basketball playoffs in Denver

Last season: The Nuggets continue to out-perform expectations while never really accomplishing anything of note.

They battled through all the roster turnover from one year to the next and a slew of quietly really damaging injuries to land the sixth seed last season after a hot start. Danilo Gallinari suffered two significant injuries that severely limited his ability to make the kind of impact he did at the start of the season where he looked like the best player on the team.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Faried emerged as a huge part of their future, and helped justify dumping Nene’s $13 million per year deal to get rid of an injury-riddled veteran. They brought in JaVale McGee with all his nonsense and faults, and the results were mixed. He had some genuinely electric playoff moments, but was still JaVale McGee.

They ran up against the Lakers and dug a hole. It looked over and they would quietly exit the playoffs. Instead, they battled back relentlessly and forced a game 7 against a team they were out-matched against, but didn’t have enough to get over the hump on the road. The result was the same, and the same questions lingered for Denver.

Key Departures: Arron Afflalo was the Nuggets’ best offensive weapon over the past three years, and now he’s wearing a deeper blue in Orlando. Al Harrington was a versatile scorer who put in a suprising amount of work defensively last year, and he’s also gone.

Rudy Fernandez headed home after threatening it for a half-decade, and Birdman Andersen was amnestied to make way for the future.

Key Additions: Denver snuck into the Dwight Howard trade and used their assets to grab Andre Iguodala. Iguodala gives them a hyper versatile forward who can run, rebound, pass, score, and defend at an elite level. He should fit in really well with the athleticism of Denver, and will be relied upon as the primary defensive stopper for George Karl. It cost a lot to get him but made them an overall much superior team.

They drafted Frenchman Evan Fournier in the first round and instead of sticking him overseas, have brought him over. The Nuggets already have more wings than they know what to do with, so Fournier likely won’t get many minutes this season. They also brought in Quincy Miller, who’s in a similar situation. They just have too much depth on the wings.

Anthony Randolph gives them another athletic big man to run the floor with and his ability to stretch the floor is something George Karl should get mileage out of as well.

Three keys to the Nuggets season:

1) Does speed kill the defense?: Karl has talked in the preseason about not needing to get into the elite level in traditional categories, but getting the defense overall into the good territory so that their point differential increases. There’s no plan to slow down the offense, so the question is, can you run a fast-pace team who also defends well?

To try and get it done, Karl will focus on the team’s athleticism in an attempt to pressure the ball and get into passing lanes. There will be a reliance on Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov as shot-blockers to “intimidate” defensivel, as Karl said on media day.

It’s never been a reliable method for improving defense. You usually have to grind the game down to give yourself time to set into your defensive positions and rotations, and an up and down game naturally opens the floor up for both teams. That will be the biggest challenge this season.

2.) Find shooters, or invent them. Danilo Gallinari has been snakebit the past two years. Whether it was injury, adjustment or bad luck, a normally reliable shooter tailed off the past two years. It came with an improvement in driving and drawing fouls, but the Nuggets still need him to stretch the floor.

They lack shooters, and their replacement options are unproven. Corey Brewer has historically been an awful perimeter shooter. Fournier is too green to see much court time. Ty Lawson can drill, but that would require someone else running the offense a majority of the time. He’ll get his, but they still need another option. Jordan Hamilton may be that fit. The second-year man out of Texas has great length and a reliable form. If the shooters don’t come around, the offense will still be good but not good enough.

3.) The Break’s Over, Here Comes The Takeover. Ty Lawson is going to have to take over the game at times. Andre Iguodala may be the most gifted player on the team, but Lawson has the ability to own the opponent with huge shots. That’s got be his role, and helping get Iguodala going will be a big part of it. At the same time, Lawson simply has to be the primary offensive threat and make himself into a household name. It’s a big step in front of him.

What Nuggets fans should fear: The defense can’t get a grip in the fast pace, Iguodala doesn’t make enough of an impact and no center emerges to protect the rim. McGee struggles as always and that contract becomes disastrous. There are no shooters and teams know to pack the paint and let the Nuggets shoot. Kenneth Faried hits his ceiling, none of the other players make jumps, and the team bobs along at the same level it has for two years.

How it likely works out: No reason to think Denver can’t challenge for the third seed. Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried alone is a triumverate worthy of consideration in the West. When you factor their style, how well the roster is built, their depth, and the likelihood of at least a few players improving to the point of relevance, the Nuggets will once again be a fun team to watch who wins a bunch of games.

And yet still not title contenders.

Prediction: 51-31. Denver cracks 50 wins without a superstar, plays at a high level, thrills fans and league pass addicts, then loses in a tough second-round series. What is what what was is what shall be.

NBA Season Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook celebrates with small forward Kevin Durant during their NBA basketball game against Chicago Bulls in Oklahoma City

Last season: So freaking close.

The Thunder beat the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City by 11 points. A double-digit victory over he mighty triumverate. It was their fifth win in a row and they looked, as teams do when the win by double-digits, like the superior team in every way. Russell Westbrook couldn’t be stopped. Kevin Durant couldn’t be stopped. The Heat couldn’t keep up with their athleticism and offensive firepower.

They never won again that season.

The next three game were decided by 16 points total. The Heat won four straight, sending the Thunder home after another step forward but once again without the prize.

It was a season that showed considerable growth for the three stars, Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. Durant became an even more efficient scorer and a better defender, Westbrook increased his production and cut down on his mistakes, Harden grew into a playmaker. The team overall, though, was much te same as it was the year before. Great offensively, pretty good defensively, dominant most of the time and exciting to watch. Defense was the only question, and in the end, it was the only one that mattered, as the grind-it-out style of the Heat wore them down and eventually bested them.

The Thunder had to have walked away from 2012 neither convinced that they could or could not win the title.

Key Departures: Nazr Mohammed played 11 minutes per game last season. He’s gone, so there’s that. That’s pretty much it. And, you know, there’s no real concerns on the horizon. Oh, wait, James Harden.

Key Additions: Perry Jones III plummeted down the draft board, all the way to the Thunder. With no concerns about how he would affect team chemistry or the expecations that would be heaped on him, the Thunder leapt at him and snatched him up. Jones gives them a versatile stretch four who can likely play 3 in some big lineups and has the potential to be an absolute steal if thigs work out right.

They brought in Hasheem Thabeet to replace Mohammed, which is fine. He has to come in, not be horrible, contest or block shots, and rebound. He will do just enough of this to not stand out while clearly still being the weakest link on the team.

How about Daniel Orton? Can I interest you in Andy Rautins? Care for some DeAndre Liggins? No? No? Anybody?

Three One keys to the Thunder season:

1) KEEP CALM AND THUNDER UP: The Thunder don’t need to adapt or change or alter. They don’t need to play differently or mix it up or make things more complex. They just need to do what they did last year.

They just need to show up, run, score, and rock. They are very fittingly the AC/DC of the NBA.

They just need to play better and hope the Heat aren’t as good as they were last year. Bear in mind that in all these other previews I can give you in-depth reasons and tactical adjustments, lineup or chemistry tweaks, philosophical or pragmatic deviations necessary for improvement. I have none for the Thunder. They just need to play a little better. That’s all I’ve got.

What Thunder fans should fear: Chemistry is the thing. This team has accomplished remarkable things at a young age, all built on the strength of their bond with one another. Young players who came up together in a small market with few distrctions who liked each and liked playing with and for one another.

But business has come. Westbrook got his extension, but there are people, even those in Oklahoma City who think that eventually, he’s going to want the opportunity to show what he can be as the main act. James Harden’s contract is on the clock. If it gets done, the Thunder have to plan for their future. If it doesn’t, they have to figure out what to do with him.

This team has exemplified fun and youth for three years, and it’s been an incredible ride. But it’s extremely rare for a team like this to stay together as they get older and the money gets bigger. It’s like the circle of life, only with publicists.

How it likely works out: It’s going to come down to the Lakers or them for the West. There is zero doubt in anyone’s rational, objective mind about this. It’s just a matter of whether Perkins can contain Dwight enough, if Durant can lift his game to another level, if Westbrook can out-produce Nash since neither can defend the other.

There is no way to tell who’s going to come out of it. It’s going to be extremely fun, and there will be many who will want to just skip right to it.

Prediction: 63-19. They have no injury concerns. They have the league’s second best player and best offensive weapons. They have twolegitimate MVP candidates. Their shot-blocking defensive star has reliable mid-range jumper. They have depth, youth, experience, energy, athleticism, skill, and are very, very hungry. The Lakers may have arrived once more. The Thunder are already here.

Doc Rivers has a good understanding of Sullinger’s weaknesses, and a plan to combat them

Jared Sullinger

I was down on Jared Sullinger in this year’s draft, and it had nothing to do with the medical red flags. So much of his game was predicated on being able to control the game off the glass against smaller college players. Bigger players gave him fits. The bigger issue, honestly, was lateral quickness and the ability to defend. But the Celtics have not only the surrounding talent but the system to allow him to thrive. So if he works out, they’ll look like geniuses whereas the teams that passed on him will look foolish, despite his low success rate on another team.

Anyway, Doc Rivers actually is aware of Sullinger’s issues and is working to protect him from that, in yet another sign of why they’re ahead of the curve on development, even on a contending team. From the Boston Herald:

So coach Doc Rivers is attempting to institute a protection plan. He wants to make sure that Sullinger is never the biggest Celtic on the floor. That way he won’t automatically draw an opposing center in the paint.

“We try to protect him so that won’t happen,” said Rivers. “The reason we played him with Kevin (Garnett) in the second quarter is because the bigger guy was always guarding Kevin. We got the matchup that way.

“Sometimes you have to create the matchup. Some teams don’t have two bigs like that, they only have one. So when you’re playing with Darko (Milicic) or you’re playing with Kevin, you really don’t have that problem. The good thing is that for a long stretch he was guarding a 5. Early on I thought they were taking advantage of it, but as the game went on I thought he got better at it.”

via Doc trying not to paint Sullinger into box –

As a lottery pick, Sullinger would not be afforded things like “playing next to Kevin Garnett” and “coming off the bench.” His expectations would be higher, his learning curve sharper, the standards for success way higher. He’s in the perfect situation in Boston from so many levels. Not only can he do the things he’s good at, and look great, he’ll be shielded from the things that would make him a liability on other teams.

Sometimes, the draft just works out the way it should, even when it looks like it shouldn’t.

Or maybe Sullinger just really is that good. Guess we’ll have to see.