Increasing inequality has not only permeated our society, but even the NBA landscape. Before we pity the Eastern Conference team owners as they wallow in their millions, let us remember that we are in a new frontier, where the NBA middle class has become a damned fate indeed, and the only goals in that case (theoretically), are to contend or prepare to contend. The latter, of course, entails evading bloated long-term deals like the plague, trading away veterans for draft picks, expiring deals or cap relief, and building around the draft.
The few teams who have successfully bucked the trend and resisted the implosion itch, yet lack the pieces to challenge for anything beyond second round playoff nirvana (the dwellers!) primarily exist in the Eastern Conference. Due to the widespread tank craze or inability to effectively buy a winning roster (New York, Brooklyn), these brave soldiers have been rewarded with adequate game attendance and playoff positions by default. While their playoff participation will likely provide little more service than participation trophies in this duopolistic conference, it’s good to see reaped rewards for some teams that were considered afterthoughts prior to the beginning of the season.
With that aside over, I will provide a few thoughts on every NBA team so far in the season. Can’t think of any banter, so let’s just get started:
Atlanta Hawks: One of the aforementioned soldiers, Atlanta is in that awkward position where it had cap space, but no one really wanted to go there. Its two best players from last season aside from Josh Smith – Al Horford and Jeff Teague – are in their mid-twenties. The building blocks are not just at ground level; unless they struck gold with a blue-chip rookie in the middle of the first round in the draft, another couple of players of similar caliber and experience would be necessary to propel the team out of its middle-of-the-pack status. The route Atlanta ultimately took was probably the right one. I don’t like re-signing 32-year old Kyle Korver to a 4-year deal worth $24 or $25 million, but the Millsap deal was one of the summer’s best. Getting Demarre Carroll was a decent addition as well. They had a nice team, still have a nice team and will continue to have a nice team for the next 30 years (probably). As white picket fence and private house middle class as you can get in the NBA.
Update: the serious Horford injury gives the Hawks an exit strategy: namely, to improve draft position in a great – potentially historic – draft class by finishing with a worse record. Over a season, according to basketball-reference.com, Horford is responsible for approximately nine wins. I would argue that his effect is even larger, unless Pero Antic and Mike Scott step up in a big way. I think that Atlanta will still be a low-seed playoff team, but chances of getting a long-term starter in the upcoming draft have increased as a silver lining effect of Horford’s pectoral tear.
What I like: Jeff Teague keeps getting better. Paul Millsap.
What I don’t like: The play of the past few draft picks. John Jenkins is unadulterated meh, and I expected more from Dennis Schroeder.
Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens seems to know what he’s doing. Too well, if you asked Danny Ainge off the record (probably). Jared Sullinger has been sublime, performing far beyond his limited below-the-rim capacities from last season. Jordan Crawford’s emergence as a playmaker has been surprising, and a healthy Avery Bradley has shown off a more efficient offensive game, aided by much reduced point guard responsibilities. Once the deadwood leaves, namely everyone who came over from Brooklyn in the summer and Brandon Bass, it will be interesting to see how the young core improves. I would like to see Jeff Green traded to a team that is closer to a finished project – like the Cavs or Suns (can’t believe I just wrote that) – and I think he will eventually move because it will hurt the Celtics’ bid for a playoff spot, the prospects of which will improve with Rondo’s return, thus giving them a better draft spot. They will also get (at least) another piece to the puzzle (another draft pick!) to possibly parlay into an even higher pick.
What I like: the progress made by the young players from last season to this one. Sullinger looks like a future 20-9 guy. Plays a bit like Kevin Love, should see him as a model. Also, Vitor Faverani.
What I don’t like: Kelly Olynyk’s hair or ability to finish around rim. Their ability to draft a necessary star if they remain in the playoff hunt. Potential to become a dweller will be rather high if this is the case.
Brooklyn: Not much that I want/need to say about this one. I predicted them to challenge for the Eastern Conference title. Was undeterred by slow start to season. Became very deterred when Brook Lopez broke his foot. When healthy, I firmly believe that this team could have given Miami a run for its money, age and terrible 3-point defense be damned. Unless the blonde Plumlee breaks from the Plumlee mold and develops an actual skill set in a matter of months and if Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans can provide a defensive upgrade significant enough to somewhat offset the scoring loss caused by Lopez’s injury, it might already be time for Prokhorov to start planning his wedding.
What I like: the competitive spirit of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to an otherwise plastic, lifeless franchise. Andray Blatche.
What I don’t like: the salary of the backcourt, Deron Williams’ ankles, the blonde Plumlee, Alan Anderson as a rotation member. Jason Kidd in post-game conferences or anywhere else, for that matter.
Charlotte Bobcats: The offense continues to suck, but the defense has improved dramatically until Steve Clifford (one of the league’s in points allowed in paint and defensive rating, according to Hoopdata.com). I would like to see more from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in his second season; hopefully he can have a bigger role in the offense after he returns from injury. Kemba Walker is probably the best player drafted by the Bobcats since Gerald Wallace; he and Gerald Henderson are a good backcourt going forward. Al Jefferson was a great signing; hasn’t been a defensive pariah and really filled a need in low-post scoring. MKG is the X-factor on the team: the team won’t get significant future help from draft as a future playoff team (even with two probable first-round picks in 2014 draft), so will rely on improvement primarily from Cody Zeller and MKG. Desperately needs shooters. James Southerland should get more time, but answer is more likely in next draft or free agency.
What I like: Cody Zeller, he’s getting better, I think he will become a 15 and 8 player. Josh McRoberts’ surprisingly good impact on defensive units this season (per NBA.com).
What I don’t like: Bismack. The laughably bad impact of Anthony Tolliver on defensive units, only plays for shooting purposes (per NBA.com).
Chicago Bulls: Truth be told, a team that I have hardly followed this season. I didn’t think that they were going to seriously challenge the Heat, even with Rose at 100%, but we’ll never know either way. I thought they should have kept Nate Robinson after he played so well against Miami, and I still think that. I’m not a fan of Hinrich, definitely not of D.J. Augustin. Dunleavy would have been a nice fit beside Rose, now has too big a role in the offense from what I’ve seen. This team will be lucky to tread water until Rose comes back next season; in a perfect world, upgrades will be made from Mohammed and Teague. The team has done as well as you could hope for seeing as its best player has been out for over a year. Good coaching, defense is still pretty good. It will be interesting to see if Luol Deng gets traded or re-signed.
What I like: the present core of Joakim Noah, Deng, and Jimmy Butler. Intense, energetic, intelligent. Great fits for Thibodeau’s system. Pity to waste on team built around injured superstar.
What I don’t like: Carlos Boozer’s slow decline, which is probably not helped by added defensive attention without Rose. Will be 33 by the time Rose is healthy again. The possibility that Deng is gone next year.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Trade proposal: Cavaliers trade Anderson Varejao, Earl Clark, and a lottery-protected first-round pick to the Celtics for Jeff Green and Courtney Lee. Celtics get necessary upgrades at wing positions: Lee is a very good spot-up shooter, Green would draw attention away from Kyrie Irving. Varejao is a favorite in Cleveland, but he has a team option for next season that’s unlikely to be exercised and it would be required sacrifice in order to mercifully take away minutes from Earl Bennett, Alonzo Gee, and CJ Miles.
The signing of Jarrett Jack suggests that the Cavs front office expected a bigger step forward this season. I don’t know how much more Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, or even Kyrie will improve: another lottery pick might help the cause, but how many more does this team need? I think the best bet is to give Tyler Zeller more time on the court by trading Varejao, hope Bennett can provide 6-8 points in 14-16 mpg. The development of the past draft picks and the 2014 pick – projected to be top 10 – will determine whether the team becomes a perennial 6-8 seed until Kyrie leaves or a 2-4 seed in the next few seasons; it would behoove Mike Brown to accept that going forward.
What I like: improvement from Thompson over past couple of seasons. fit of Andrew Bynum.
What I don’t like: no marked improvement from any young player so far in this season; Dion Waiters should get to the line more, for the kind of player that he is; the plan with/play of Anthony Bennett. Amount of time that Zeller gets.
Dallas Mavericks: When 5 of the team’s 9 biggest contributors are 32 or older, you can probably assume that this team has a couple of lottery selections in its future, one which depends on the success of the current squad (OKC owns its 2014 top-20 protected pick). Like Atlanta, they were also prepared with cap space for a major free-agent signing. Since Dwight, Chris Paul, nor Deron Williams came, Monta Ellis is now a Maverick and, to his credit, part of a formidable duo alongside the almost-immortal Dirk Nowitzki. Unless a major trade can change the team’s fortunes, the team will be a 7 or 8 seed for the next couple of seasons before bottoming out.
What I like: the second life of Vince Carter continues, as he’s putting together another decent season at age 37. Same goes for Shaun Marion (35), who’s a free agent/possible retiree after this season. Brandan Wright is one of the game’s better back-up bigs: efficient, decent shot blocker. The cap space. Not too much going on next summer in free agency, but Trevor Ariza, Luol Deng, and Jordan Hill could all be potential targets.
What I don’t like: Jae Crowder’s ceiling (watch your head) and the point guard situation. A wealth of options, but no particularly good one. Jose Calderon has shot the ball very well and runs the offense at a high level. But he’s 32. Carlisle should try to see what Shane Larkin can do in 2014.
Denver Nuggets: The construction of last year’s team was one of my favorites. With a healthy Danilo Gallinari, this team probably would have made more noise in the Western Conference playoffs. This team is undoubtedly worse and is seemingly unsure what it wants to be. Last year’s version was younger, yet more equipped to win. This team seems like it’s ready to settle into 8-to-10 seed purgatory for the foreseeable future. It’s clear that JaVale McGee is just overpaid and has likely peaked. Gallinari’s return will help, but the team with George Karl at the helm had a vision that is much more opaque with Brian Shaw.
What I like: Nate Robinson, even though he could provide a greater service for a team like the Lakers or Bulls. More time for Timofey Mozgov, who’s a pretty good center.
What I don’t like: loss of Kosta Koufos for pennies on the dollar. The combined $26 million paid to Randy Foye, JaVale McGee, Anthony Randolph, JJ Hickson, and Andre Miller ($29.5 if Darrell Arthur exercises his player option, which is likely)…Any of those players, especially Randy Foye. This team has too many power forwards. Too many. I don’t know what the plan was, unless it was to emulate the Milwaukee Bucks roster blueprint…Josh Kroenke.
Detroit Pistons: I really like what Joe Dumars did, for once, last summer. Fit fell secondary to talent acquisition and, in that regard, he succeeded. Jennings is a better player on both ends than Knight, and Josh Smith completes the ultra-big frontcourt that the Pistons have employed so far in the season. While it has its weaknesses and critics, I think that this sort of line-up could have big benefits against certain teams, including Miami. Jennings’ commitment to sharing the ball more upon joining Detroit has been encouraging for the team’s prospects.
What I like: the ability of Monroe and Drummond to complement each other, particularly on offense. Ability to address back-up frontcourt and shooting needs through $15 million or so of cap space (per Hoopshype.com).
What I don’t like: current bench depth, beyond Singler and Stuckey. Kentavious Cantwell-Pope needs to take better shots and improve at hitting open ones. His ability to become a 3-point threat will go a long way in determining the starting line-up’s ability to space the floor. 4, which is the number of 3-point attempts that Josh Smith takes per game.
Golden State Warriors: This team’s reliance on hot 3-point shooting and the health of its big men, particularly after Jermaine O’Neal’s potentially season-ending wrist surgery, strongly suggest that an extended playoff run is not in the cards. I think the team really misses Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack.
What I like: the balance of the starting five. The fit of Andrew Bogut and David Lee: one is a good scorer (Lee), the other a good defender (Bogut), both very good rebounders. The emergence of Klay Thompson as a top-7 shooting guard. Good perimeter defense.
What I don’t like: the reliance on small-ball if either Lee or Bogut went down for any significant amount of time. No first-round pick in the 2014 draft.
Houston Rockets: Less than two years ago, Daryl Morey had a roster comprised of decent young players, talented veterans like Luis Scola and Kevin Martin, and a glut of draft picks. Fast-forward to the present, where you have a team with title aspirations. Neither point guard is a great fit: Lin is best with the ball in his hands, Beverley is a defense-first guard. My friend was spot-on when he said that Kyle Lowry, who Houston traded away a couple of seasons ago, would be an ideal backcourt partner to Harden (average 3-point shooter, but has good court vision, defends well, and protects the ball better than Lin). I like Terrence Jones as a fit beside Dwight Howard and I expect him to improve at the starting power forward position. The Rockets do as well because, if he does not, there is no other answer on the roster.
What I like: Center depth when Omer Asik returns. Asik is not a particularly good defensive center, contrary to reputation, but he’s an excellent defensive rebounder, which could spell success for Houston in addressing its rebounding struggles.
What I don’t like: Houston’s steady concession of second-chance baskets and turnovers. Trying Asik and Howard together could reduce the issues caused by the former, albeit at the cost of offensive efficiency. Omar Casspi and Greg Smith do not cut it as back-up power forward. Would be a good target for 2014 draft.
Indiana Pacers: If Danny Granger can give Indiana 9 to 12 points and shoot at least 38% from the 3-point line, the Pacers will be a complete team. The Scola trade was just what the doctor ordered: the elder Plumlee is playing well in Phoenix, but was not the type of player that Indiana needed. I believe that the Pacers will represent the East in the 2014 NBA Finals if Danny Granger can remain healthy and provide a much-needed scoring boost from the bench.
What I like: C.J. Watson, Danny Granger, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench. Paul George and Roy Hibbert’s evolution as stars in the league. The value of David West.
What I don’t like: Rasual Butler or Orlando Johnson ever coming into the game on a team that hopes to contend for a title.
Los Angeles Clippers: What is DeAndre Jordan? He blocks shots, rebounds well, and finishes alley oops, but after watching Nikola Pekovic have his best game of the season against the former Aggie, I wonder if he can be characterized as a great defensive center. It doesn’t help that Blake Griffin, who got equally embarrassed by Kevin Love, isn’t a particularly good defender. With that said, it gets worse when they come out. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, and Jared Dudley have all had below-average success in their 3-point shooting; by law of averages, they should improve as the season progresses. Darren Collison is no Eric Bledsoe, on either end. Acquiring at least one defensive big man in free agency or the draft is a requisite.
What I like: the depth at the wing positions, Doc Rivers
What I don’t like: Chris Paul is the team’s third-highest rebounder…same old Blake: puts up good numbers, but can’t be given the ball and relied on to score, especially at the end of games… the back-up big men, Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullins, who are statistically horrific on defense (per NBA.com).
Los Angeles Lakers: With almost any other coach, this Lakers team, an island of misfit toys and forgotten lottery selections, would probably be among the worst in the league. For Mike D’Antoni, a coach who laughs at pretensions like superior talent and watches the world burn, this team has been one of the league’s most entertaining. Anyone on this roster can score 20 or 2 in a given game. Nick “Swaggy P” Young has played point guard out of necessity, Xavier Henry has (occasionally) shown why he was a former No. 1 high school recruit, and Chris Kaman never plays. In this alternate universe where Jordan Hill regularly outplays Pau Gasol, Shawne Williams, Wes Johnson and Jodie Meeks have all regained relevance, and Steve Blake has enjoyed a career year when healthy, this team should be way worse, but somehow has hovered near .500. The future is not very bright, particularly with 2 of the next 4 first-round draft picks in the possession of other teams, but if there was any team that could work its black magic to get back into contention, it’s the Lakers. Stay tuned.
What I like: Almost everything, apart from Kobe’s injury issues. This is D’Antonian anarchy at its finest.
What I don’t like: The team’s rebounding is abysmal. Assist numbers are similarly terrible, but that’s probably attributed to injuries to the team’s first 7 point guards. It’s sad that Chris Kaman is wasting away on the bench, but that’s the price of trusting in D’Antoni for minutes.
Memphis Grizzlies: While I usually don’t delve into hypotheticals, one of my favorite what-ifs of the NBA season has been, “what if Lionel Hollins was still coach?” Even before Marc Gasol got injured, Memphis had taken a big step back from last year’s Western Conference Finals success. Tayshaun Prince should be nowhere near the court at this stage in his career and injuries have not helped, but the team’s defensive ratings has dropped precipitously, from 2nd to 25th this season (per basketball-reference.com). The team’s PPG allowed is good, but that is primarily due to the team’s sluggish pace, good for worst in the league. Kosta Koufos was essentially gift-wrapped by the Nuggets in the offseason and Mike Miller was a necessary influx of shooting/scoring efficiency. The team, by most accounts, improved, yet the team’s vaunted defensive efficiency has plummeted. Changing coaches might have ruined the team’s faint chances of challenging for the Western Conference title. Rebuilding is not necessary, but revamping is. Joerger, GM Chris Wallace, and majority owner Robert Pera deserve more blame than the players do.
What I like: Mike Conley is really good, I think Ed Davis and Zach Randolph can be one of the league’s best power forward platoons for the next couple of seasons. Kosta Koufos is an excellent back-up center. Being able to re-sign him would be a very good thing.
What I don’t like: the team’s production from the wing positions. Quincy Pondexter is not a good shooter. Let’s accept this and move on. The team needs to draft a shooting guard or small forward who can shoot well. Glenn Robinson III , James Young (if he declares), or Rodney Hood could be good fits. How the heck is Tayshaun Prince making nearly $8 million next season? What did the Pistons have to do to get Memphis to take him in the Rudy Gay trade?