100 early season observations

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We lost basketball this year. Precious, sweet basketball. And even though most of the lockout happened in the offseason, those days were still slogs through disappointment and frustration. So to mourn those days and celebrate the first week of professional basketball this season, here are 100 observations on the early season.

1. Lob City’s a work in progress like all teams thrust together are, but there are also career developments that have to happen with Griffin and Jordan’s defense.

2. The Bulls are going to be really great when they win, which is most of the time, and really ugly when they lose.

3. The Heat are just going to be really great even when they’re losing. Sorry, it’s true.

4. The Cavaliers are a lot better than we thought they’d be. They’re going to lose a metric ton of games when the rush of early season wears off, but they’ve got a foundation there to build on.

5. Boston has problems that go beyond Pierce, on both ends.

6. But Boston also has some things going for it, especially the play of Brandon Bass.

7. James Harden has not locked up the 6th Man of the Year by any stretch of the imagination, it’s been three games for crying out loud. But he definitely looks like the strongest candidate early on.

8. The Blazers are much better than I expected. They’re not getting bullied inside and they’re doing the bullying on the perimeter. It’s a strong combination of players.

9. The Lakers will be winning, but they’ll be winning ugly. Mike Brown is getting the most out of a weak roster outside of the Big 3, but that means playing some ugly basketball the Staples faithful might not enjoy.

10. Vinny Del Negro has some done some bizarre things early on. Running pick and rolls with Blake Griffin as ball-handler and putting Griffin on Joakim Noah are only a few examples. It’s a learning process for him as well and I’ve never been as down on Del Negro as others, but some of it is just perplexing.

11. Tristan Thompson is going to be better than most of us thought. Lots to learn, though.

12. Enes Kanter is going to be worse than most of us thought, at least for a while. Lots of rebounds, though.

13. LeBron James’ post game has improved maybe just enough for him to not rely on it but to make a significant difference.

14. Wade, at least early on, is the tip of the spear for Miami’s offense, which is what makes James’ scoring totals so outrageous.

15. The Kobe Bryant you’ve seen is what you’re going to get. Nights of sheer brilliance and a lot of of inefficient scoring nights where he handles the load.

16. That said, Bynum could make all the difference. If he can get to the arena with all the traffic tickets he gets.

17. The Pacers have a really good team that can play consistently, score, and defend, and may still wind up a five seed.

18. Ho-hum, another year where the Hawks keep winning games and no one stops to notice how well they’re playing.

19. Ho-hum, another year where the Hawks play really well for long stretches and still don’t make an impact in the playoffs.

20. If the Wizards had any sense of poise whatsoever, the Nets would be the worst team in the league in just about every category right now.

21. Deron, big market Brooklyn, owner that wants to win, I get it. But if Howard looks at this roster and says “I can win with those guys this year” he’s out of his mind. Unless he wants an early summer vacation, no way he should go to Brooklyn.

22. Chris Bosh is more aggressive than I’ve ever seen him, even in Toronto.

23. Speaking of which, early on, the Raptors aren’t bad. Competitive, playing hard, rebounding, and some balance. Long way to go, but I like what Casey is doing there.

24. Memphis will figure it out eventually, but this team is going to have to find the gear it had from February on last year and that’s really difficult. Missing Arthur hurts.

25. The Sixers, despite a loss to Utah, are one of the most impressive teams I’ve seen. There’s something to be said for experience together.

26. Flip Saunders, here’s some ice for that hot seat.

27. Andrew Bogut doesn’t look healthy, but he doesn’t look injured, you know?

28. John Wall has to play better.

29. Taj Gibson does an unbelievable amount for the Bulls off the bench.

30. Phoenix has looked really bad at both ends. Maybe they’ll get it together, but the lack of offense is a huge concern. That’s what they’ve got. If they don’t have that, they’re in trouble.

31. New Orleans’ effort under Monty Williams is admirable, even if the performance isn’t sustainable, which, who knows?

32. All of these observations are based under a handful of games and only a small amount will seem valid in March.

33. Ricky Rubio: Worth the hype.

34. Rick Adelman: Worth the hire.

35. Michael Beasley: Worth neither of the two above.

36. Charlotte has the effort and has a lot of guys improving.

37. Diaw has been particularly impressive considering, you know, Diaw.

38. Kemba Walker and Jimmer both have a place in the league when I had reservations about both. The place may not be big, but it’s there.

39. Mark Jackson storming out of the gates is not something I expected.

40. The Warriors’ defense with that roster is yet another sign that defense in this league is as much systemic as personnel dependent.

41. Carmelo Anthony at point forward is a disaster.

42. And the worst part is it’s limited Amar’e Stoudemire’s role which hurts just about everything.

43. San Antonio looks like it’s gotten the defense back in its gameplan early on. That’s big.

44. Conditioning has been a lot better than most expected.

45. Defensive 3-seconds, not so much.

46. Shaun Livingston has impressed in limited minutes for Milwaukee. His first game was the best I’ve seen since before the injury.

47. The Kings are about what you’d expect. Fun to watch, losing every night.

48. Denver has been monstrous.

49. Al Harrington shooting better? Expected. Al Harrington defending better? Not expected.

50.  DeMar DeRozan has not started as well as I thought he might.

51. Ty Lawson is a speed demon and you should probably get a hand up on him.

52. Nene has struggled offensively. He’s making an impact defensively but the Nuggets need a pick and roll partner.

53. Danilo Gallinari needs to find his range, like, right now. Great aggressiveness, but missing the arc.

54. LeBron James won’t average a triple double. It’ll just feel like it.

55. Lawrence Frank has not gotten through to Detroit yet.

56. Which means Lawrence Frank has lost about 22 games in a row.

57. The Pistons’ refusal to play younger lineups is baffling.

58. The problem in OKC isn’t Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant, there is no Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant.

59. The problem is Russell Westbrook vs. being No.2. He’s not and will not be.

60. Gerald Henderson has shown a really impressive ability to find space in the flow of the offense. He’s not going to create off the dribble much outside of layups, but he spits around screens and catches and shoots really well.

61. Luol Deng looks just about as good as he did last season, if not better, which should terrify everyone.

62. DeJuan Blair is still not a good enough interior defender.

63. Tiago Splitter might be, though.

64. It’s not so much what David West is giving the Pacers as what he’s allowing them to do.

65. I’ve crowned Paul George Mega-Man. The guy came into the league with very few abilities and it seems like every game he defeats and gains the powers of his opponent. I’m expecting him to have a buzzsaw for an arm soon.

66. Gerald Wallace has been good at just about everything involved with playing basketball. Shooting, scoring, defense, steals, blocks, rebounds, you name it.

67. Ryan Anderson, Most Improved Player?

68. Turns out Stan Van Gundy can still coach a team up. Even one featuring Chris Duhon in a big role.

69. Luis Scola, pretty good.

70. Denver is 26th in points allowed per game, but 10th in defensive efficiency, which is points per 100 possessions. Stats are good, people!

71. Jason Kidd is shooting a lot of threes, which is not how the Mavericks offense should work, even if his clip is pretty good the last few years.

72. Kevin Love drawing fouls is just weird.

73. Kyle Lowry has been even better than last year, and that’s saying something.

74. Greg Stiemsma, block machine.

75. Marvin Williams is averaging 14 points per game and 20 per 36. My mind = blown. I don’t care if it’s three games.

76. The Hawks are first in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency. Weak schedule, but still. Impressive for three games.

77. It’s been really good to see Anderson Varejao back on the floor.

78. I’m trying to think of something that the Jazz do well. I’ll be back in an hour.

79. Russell Westbrook has had an emotional rollercoaster of a first week.

80. Would the Celtics have been better if they’d worked out together this summer? Or is it just Pierce?

81. I miss Jeff Green. I know most of you don’t, but I do.

82. Ben Gordon is actually passing really well and running an offense. It’s like Soviet Russia. Ben Gordon should be point guard and Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey should be shooting guards.

83. Tyreke Evans hasn’t made the jump and that’s disappointing considering the injuries healing were supposed to help.

84. MOAR JEREBKO.

85. Imagine how good the Nuggets will be offensively when they find their range?

86. The Knicks slid back so severely after such a good first game. Says more about Boston than them.

87. The Bulls are 20th in defensive efficiency. Small sample sizes for the win!

88. Manu Ginobili got healthy, which is, you know, death to defenses.

89. At one point this week, Renaldo Balkman was guarding Kobe Bryant. That went about as well as you’d think.

90. Teams are not handling back to backs well early on. Good thing they’ve only got 30 more of them.

91. The Heat are a flying death machine.

92. Deron Williams doesn’t look right, whether it’s injury, fatigue, or disinterest.

93. And the Nets’ problems go so much further than Brook Lopez’ absence.

94. Caron Butler has played better than most thought he would. Hasn’t been a difference maker but has played well.

95. Jeremy Pargo has been better than expected.

96. Defending LeBron James right now is exceptionally difficult. Even more so than usual.

97. Timofey Mozgov has actually played pretty smartly for as inexperienced as he is.

98. John Wall is really struggling at just about everything. He’s just not able to make the plays he should be able to.

99. Brandon Rush…?

100. And in conclusion, Iman Shumpert. Get better soon, rook.

Daryl Morey says Rockets should be favorites in West

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What else did you expect him to say?

Rockets GM Daryl Morey is both confident and a bit obsessive on the topic of bringing a title to Houston. So when Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle asked him if, with the Warriors taking a step back, the Rockets should be the favorite in the West, there was only one answer.

“Yes. We’re favorites. But as usual, there is some very tough competition: Clippers, Lakers, Utah. Then I’d say people are probably underrating Golden State still. We have a healthy respect for them. But we go in shooting for the No. 1 seed.”

That’s a lofty goal, but this is the bigger question to me: What matters more, a top seed or adding in load management so James Harden and Russell Westbrook (and Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, etc.) are rested and 100 percent (or as close as any players are at that point in the season) when the playoffs start? That’s not a simple yes/no answer, there’s a sliding scale of rest vs. need for a high seed, but the team needs to have a priority.

There are plenty of questions about the Rockets heading into the season: Can isolation masters Westbrook and Harden find an offensive balance? (My guess is they do, although it could take a little time.) Do they have enough depth? Can this team defend at a high level — an advance deep in the playoff level — with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? (That’s the one to watch.)

Morey sees a team that has the advantage of continuity — even with all the changes, because Westbrook and Harden have known each other back to their high school days — and a team that will play a little faster.

“I think we have great continuity because I think we’re returning more minutes than most teams in the league, but also the familiarity of all the players. You get players of similar age like Russ and James and Eric in particular, they’ve known each other since they were very young. They’ve been battling on the court together, against and with each other for a long time….

“I think we’re going to get back to transition being more of a weapon for us. That was something Mike did very well his first year for us. Mostly because we were an elite halfcourt team, we got away from it. With a weapon like Russell in transition, you have to use it.”

The Rockets are going to be good this season. Very good. Favorites in the West good? That they are going to have to prove.

NBA owners wanted tampering crackdown, reportedly now concerned about privacy, effectiveness

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As we wrote when the details came out about owners pushing a crackdown on tampering around the NBA and increased fines, it’s one thing to talk tough and something else entirely to enforce those rules. The devil is always in the details.

This week NBA owners are descending upon New York for the annual preseason Board of Governors meetings, and they are wrestling with those devils, reports Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN. Specifically, should the league be able to monitor a team’s communications with other teams and agents?

In conversations with numerous league officials, team owners, general managers and agents, there’s some uncertainty about the means the NBA might use to investigate alleged rules violations. Atop those concerns for team officials are what league sources insist was Commissioner Adam Silver toughest decision in bringing new rules to a vote: An annual, random auditing of five teams’ communications with rival front offices and player agents…

Pre-June 30 discussions between teams and agents would migrate away from text messages and emails if the league gets the right to audit five teams per year at random. That one clause will likely engender a lot of discussion today and Friday, league sources say. Teams are curious: what would an audit entail? How much access would the league get to the cell phones of GMs and governors? What happens if they go looking for tampering and find other information of interest — intel on players and coaches, financial plans, one off-color joke?…

“I don’t think he should have any right to get into my phone,” one GM told ESPN. “I wish my owner would vote no, but I doubt he will. You’ll only make yourself a target for investigation if you do.”

What the proposed new rules do is increase fines and say Silver has the right to take away draft picks if a team is caught tampering (a power he already has, but one teams fear more than fines), and add the audits. Those audits mean teams would have to keep texts and emails with agents for at least a year. Silver also wants teams to do a little self-policing — of themselves, to act more like partners in one big business. The goal is to build an NBA culture without much tampering. Good luck with that.

Silver is too politically savvy to bring this proposal forward if he didn’t have the votes lined up, something Wojnarowski and Lowe note. It’s going to get approved, something primarily driven by small and medium market teams who see themselves as just trying to level the playing field. (Even though plenty of them tamper, too.)

However, just like now, only teams to slow on figuring out how to cover their tracks will get caught.

There are plenty of means of communication with an agent, for example, that are not texts/emails and can easily disappear from existence (WhatsApp, for example, but teams may not even use that). There also is always simply using a human intermediary to deliver a message or ask a question, something that could not easily be traced. It’s not that difficult to cover your tracks electronically, either.

The other question out there: What will be the unintended consequences of this move? Any major policy decision — in basketball, in politics, in life — has consequences nobody saw coming at the time, this move will too. And small market owners will likely complain about that, too.

Team USA keeps top spot in FIBA men’s world rankings, Spain No. 2

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USA Basketball has kept its No. 1 spot in the FIBA world men’s rankings, even after a disappointing seventh-place showing in the World Cup that ended earlier this week.

It’s now nine-years-and-counting in the top spot for the U.S., which has held the No. 1 ranking since winning the 2010 world championship. World Cup champion Spain stayed No. 2, Australia leaped eight spots to No. 3, World Cup finalist Argentina rose one spot to No. 4 and World Cup bronze-medalist France fell two slots to No. 5.

FIBA’s rankings take results from the most recent eight years into account – which means the U.S. is still reaping point benefits from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medals and the 2014 World Cup title.

“In this day and age, basketball in other countries is not a secret,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said after the Americans completed their run in the World Cup. “So it’s not like there’s an epiphany or a revelation to be made. There are wonderful teams and wonderful coaches all over the world. You go compete and the best teams win.”

It’s now expected that the U.S. will retain the No. 1 ranking going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Several top NBA players, including Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Damian Lillard have said in recent days that they intend to play for the U.S. in Tokyo, where the Americans will try to win a fourth consecutive gold medal.

Most top U.S. players declined to be part of the World Cup team.

“I’m expecting them to be so strong next year,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.

OLYMPIC UPDATE

The new rankings confirmed that European champion Slovenia, which didn’t earn a spot in the World Cup field after many of its top players couldn’t take part in qualifying since those games conflicted with the NBA and Euroleague schedules, will still have a chance to compete in the Olympics – as will seven other teams that found out they’re headed to playoffs next year.

Angola, Senegal, Mexico, Uruguay, China, Korea and Croatia also still have Olympic hopes. Those last eight playoff spots awarded Thursday went to the top two teams from Africa, Europe, Asia-Oceania and the Americas regions who hadn’t either already clinched Olympic berths or spots in the last-chance playoffs.

Japan is automatically qualified for the 12-team Olympic tournament as the host country. The U.S., Argentina, Nigeria, Spain, France, Iran and Australia clinched Olympic spots at the World Cup by finishing as the best teams in their respective FIBA regions – the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia and Oceania.

That leaves four unclaimed Olympic berths, and 24 teams to compete for them in playoffs next year. There will be four six-team tournaments held from June 23-28, 2020 – winner-take-all, all in this case meaning an Olympic berth. Bidding for sites is expected to begin shortly, FIBA said.

The other 16 playoff spots were awarded based on World Cup placing. They went to Serbia, Lithuania, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, New Zealand and Tunisia.

MOVING UP

Belize was the top mover in the new rankings, climbing 50 spots to No. 118. Kosovo rose 21 spots to No. 69, Togo went up 21 spots to No. 136, Tunisia climbed 18 spots to No. 33 and Ivory Coast went up 16 spots to No. 48.

STILL SWEEPING

FIBA has four sets of rankings – for men, women, boys and girls. The U.S. holds the No. 1 spot in all four of those rankings, though the race is tightest among the men.

The U.S. men hold a lead of 54.9 points over Spain in those rankings, while the rankings margins held by the U.S. women (310 points over No. 2 Spain), boys (291 points over No. 2 Canada) and girls (155 points over No. 2 Spain) are far more comfortable.

Report: NBA won’t allow Rockets to use Nene’s contract as $10M trade chip

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Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a huge blow to Houston. The Rockets are now stuck with an over-the-hill center they can’t trade for value and can’t play much without triggering bonuses that’ll make him way overpaid.

If they had known how this would turn out, they would’ve signed Nene to a one-year minimum contract at most. At least that’d be partially subsidized by the league. Because this is is a two-year deal, Houston is on the hook for the full base salary.

 

 

The Rockets got a valuable trade chip with Nene’s contract.

At least if the deal goes through.

Bobby Marks of ESPN:

Although Nene signed with the Houston Rockets on Sept. 6, the NBA has yet to officially approve the deal. The 10-day delay is a result of the NBA discussing internally whether it should disapprove details in the contract, according to multiple sources.

Nene’s contract includes a low base salary with a massive amount of likely incentives. Houston could count Nene’s full $10 million salary (base plus likely incentives) in a trade. The acquiring team would then owe Nene his base salary plus only the bonuses he actually triggers.

It’s a workaround to the typical salary-matching rules.

The bonuses are tied to individual games played and team games won. Because Nene played 42 games for the 53-win Rockets last season, the bonuses are qualified as likely. Last year’s performance is the default way to determine whether incentives are likely or unlikely.

You can read more about the contract’s structure here.

The NBA’s apprehension is interesting. The Collective Bargaining Agreement specifies a procedure for challenging incentive classification when the league or union believes the prior season is not a fair predictor. Essentially, that side makes a case to an arbiter that the default assumption is “very likely” to be wrong.

However, in a funny quirk here, that challenge system lays out only how the NBA can challenge to turn unlikely incentives into likely incentives and how the union can challenge to turn likely incentives into unlikely incentives. There’s nothing about the NBA turning likely incentives into unlikely incentives, which the league is apparently considering here (and would make Nene’s contract invalid, as there’s a limit on unlikely incentives).

The CBA also prohibits circumventing the spirit of the rules. The league could rule Houston did that here. However, that’s a tough case considering not only does Nene’s contract meet all stated technicalities, there’s a section specifically on challenging these types of details. It just doesn’t apply.

The Heat opened the door for likely/unlikely-incentive shenanigans a couple years ago. We didn’t hear then about the NBA challenging those contracts, and that’s where the official challenge system would’ve applied.

It seems unfair to punish the Rockets’ creativity now.