The Kerley Effect and the Case for Geno Smith

In a season where the Jets were expected to challenge for the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, finishing at 8-8 seemed almost as unlikely as attaining a playoff berth (which the team was theoretically one win away from attaining).  The front seven, while inconsistent, had prolonged periods of dominance.  The running back platoon, headlined by Chris Ivory, exceeded expectations. For a team with a rookie quarterback, a revamped secondary, and an offensive line that ranked among the worst in sacks allowed and QB hits allowed (per NFL.com), 8-8 signified a successful season indeed.  Rex Ryan has deservedly retained his job after arguably having his best season as head coach and will likely receive a two or three year extension to avoid lame duck speculation carrying into next season.

A question that has yielded a much more scattered answer, however, has been whether Geno Smith provided sufficient evidence to warrant another season as the team’s starting quarterback.  In some games, he showed moxie, vision, and improvisational ability; in other games, he was unambiguously abhorrent, particularly in November. While his improved play over the team’s 3-1 finish to the season has been attributed to development, such an explanation does not account for his dismal stretches in the season.

To get started, Smith entered the season with a running game and offensive line that both projected to be middle-of-the-pack and a corp of wide receivers that was generally regarded as among the worst in the league.  Santonio Holmes had spent the majority of the 2012 season and 2013 offseason recovering from a severe Lisfranc fracture.  Kellen Winslow and David Nelson were brought in to provide depth.  Nelson and Winslow, like Holmes, were both coming off of lost seasons: Nelson had ironically torn his ACL against the Jets in the opening game of the 2012 season, while Winslow only played in one game for non-health reasons (contract dispute with Seahawks, cut mid-season by Patriots). Despite being dogged by injuries in his rookie season, Stephen Hill had shown enough  to inspire hope as a deep threat a la Mike Wallace.

It’s Jeremy Kerley, however, who was always going to be the X-factor for Geno Smith’s success. The third year receiver from TCU had made a large stride in production from rookie to sophomore year, and any sort of similar (or improved) numbers were necessary in order for the rookie QB to have any stability.  Based on the embarrassing wealth of injury woes that hovered over the team before the season even started, Kerley needed to continue his progression as a budding star at the slot position.

Every rookie starting QB in recent years has relied on an excellent running game or a primary target: last year, Andrew Luck had Reggie Wayne, Ryan Tannehill had Brian Hartline, RGIII and Russell Wilson had the second and third rushing yards leaders in Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch, respectively.  Even Brandon Weeden (lol) had rookie running back Trent Richardson and the dual receiving threats of Greg Little and budding star Josh Gordon.

If you combine the number of games that the seven receivers and running backs mentioned in the previous paragraph missed last season, you would arrive at the grand total of one, attributed to Richardson.  Kerley  missed four games this year.  For the 2013 season, he only played in 61% of the team’s offensive snaps (per footballoutsiders.com).

Perhaps if there had been another receiver who could fill the void as a go-to guy for Geno throughout the season, this would not have been an issue.  However, Winslow also missed four games due to PED suspension.  Holmes was not the same player even before succumbing to hamstring issues midway through the season; he ultimately played in 11 games (only targeted in 10).  Hill dealt with knee swelling all season and was inactive for the final four games of the season.  Nelson – who was signed four games into the season – became a favored target for Geno by necessity in the wake of Winslow’s suspension, despite dealing with hamstring issues throughout October.  Even the team’s best back, Ivory, was limited by hamstring and ankle issues throughout October and December.

To give you a better idea of the deficiency in position stability, of all skill position players, Jeff Cumberland led the team in percentage of offensive snaps played with 63% (per footballoutsiders.com). While every team deals with injuries, almost any other team was more prepared to deal with the constantly fluctuating look of the offense, simply due to better health and more depth heading into the campaign.

Geno’s stats for the season look pretty terrible: 12 TDs, 21 INTs, 7 fumbles, 55.8% completion percentage, a QBR of 35.9 and RAT of 66.5 (per ESPN). They will, in all likelihood, be compared ad nauseam to the stat lines of Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez in their rookie years. Geno’s numbers are actually almost identical to Sanchez’s rookie figures, but they do favor slightly in most categories (particularly in passing yards, where Geno trumped Sanchez by  600 yards, per ESPN).

But before you bring out the nooses, Jets fans, the context provides insight into why Geno may still become the team’s answer at quarterback for 2014 and beyond.  While Geno endured shaky pass protection for much of the season and an unholy combination of copious injury issues and an utter dearth of talent at skill positions, Sanchez had Jerricho Cotchery and Braylon Edwards at wide receiver, as well as the best running game and one of the league’s premier offensive lines at his disposal.

A primary reason I believe that Geno can be a good quarterback in this league is the Kerley Effect or, to a lesser extent, the combined Kerley/Winslow Effect.

In the 12 games when Jeremy Kerley played this season, Winslow played in eight of those contests.  In the four games that Kerley played, but Winslow did not, Geno averaged 177 passing yards per game, threw for one TD compared to five INTs, and his weighted/unweighted completion percentage hung at a humble line of 55.2%/54.1%.  His RAT and QBR were even worse: 58.8 and 16.1, respectively.

While Holmes’ concurrent absence may have played a role, strength of competition was probably the other central culprit for this torrid stretch, as the Jets faced the Steelers, Patriots, Bengals, and Saints – who had a combined .656 winning percentage this season – in the four games of Winslow’s absence.

In the 12 games that Winslow played, Kerley also missed four, of which Geno played his worst football of the season.  He only averaged just over 118 passing yards per games, he did not throw one TD against nine INTs, and his weighted/unweighted completion percentages were 40.0%/39.7%.  In fairness to Geno, Stephen Hill was effectively useless due to injury (despite starting!) in three of those contests and Holmes has a combined six catches in those games. The other wide receivers during those games were Nelson and Greg Salas.

However, in the eight games that Geno had his two best receiving weapons in Kerley and Winslow, he played like a completely different quarterback.  He averaged 233 passing yards per game, he threw for 11 TDs compared to seven INTs, and he had a weighted/unweighted completion percentages of 62.0%/62.8%, respectively.

More impressively, his RAT soared to 91.3 and his QBR effectively doubled – from his season average – to 63.9, a figure that would place him within the league top 10.  Even his running stats improved in these eight games: 34.4 yards per game and 3 TDs, compared to 11.4 yards per game and 2 TDs in the eight games when he only had Kerley or Winslow.

(The team’s record also happened to be 6-2 in those games)

Did the record have to do with opponent difficulty? Sure, but of those eight performances, five were against teams with an above league average pass defense and three were against teams with top-10 pass defenses (Carolina, Cleveland, Buffalo).

Going into the next season, especially with Holmes destined to get cut, the team’s top priority should be acquiring two wide receivers and a tight end in free agency and the draft.  Two seasons after drafting Stephen Hill above Alshon Jeffrey, the former Georgia Tech star has not been able to avert injuries and, while he has shown great speed, athleticism, and ability to make contested catches, staying healthy has to be the next step.

Regardless of Hill’s future success in staying healthy, the team desperately needs to find a wide receiver who Smith can develop and build a rapport with besides Kerley.  Eric Decker and Jeremy Maclin – currently recovering from an ACL tear – highlight the 2014 free agent class at the WR position.  Looking at wide outs like Davante Adams, Kelvin Benjamin, or Marqise Lee might be the way to go in either the first or second round.

Same goes for the tight end position.  If the Jets choose not to take a WR, there are also a couple of tight ends worthy of a first-round pick, such as Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro or UNC’s Eric Ebron.  Either way, the team needs to make upgrades to the talent currently at its skill positions.  The defense, especially with upgrades at the safety position, should challenge as a top-7 unit, but the offense will have to make up ground in order for the team to have a chance at surpassing .500 next season.

Geno Smith, by the basic numbers and at times, may seem like another Sanchez, but there is a major difference: as the Kerley Effect shows, he has played well when he has talent around him.  The fact that he was able to play so well with a slot receiver and a tight end as his two primary targets should be enough to encourage fans.  The third-year slot receiver had to be the main target for Smith this season, but he could not due to defensive attention and injuries.  In order to realize his potential, Geno needs another weapon and  improved stability at the skill positions.  It’s up to the Jets brass to provide it for him.

KD’s 2013 NBA Season Reveries: The Sequel

What’s interesting about the gap in quality between the two conferences is that some teams that do not make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference will likely be in worse shape than some lottery teams in the West.  A couple of teams who make the playoffs in the East will probably be in worse shape than a couple in the West that fall short of playoff ball, yet the latter teams will get a better draft position due to the league structure. By laws of probability, it is not a structure that will alleviate the talent disparity; rather, it might actually increase the gap.

Anyway, with that aside, let’s get started on Part 2.

Miami Heat: Michael Beasley’s return as a contributing member to the NBA has made Miami even more dangerous.  The two issues that followed Miami last season – rebounding and Dwyane Wade’s health – will probably be the questions asked going into the 2014 playoffs. LeBron James is still the world’s best player, 3-point shooting is still a strength, and if Greg Oden can return as a player who averages 20 minutes a game, Miami will be scary good.

What I like: stability, great chemistry, confidence. Look of a two-time champion.

What I don’t like: the ability to battle with the likes of Detroit – yes, Detroit – and Indiana if Greg Oden cannot return to form this season.

Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo has improbably become the face of the Milwaukee Bucks by virtue of his name, the team’s dearth of any other seat-filler, his age (just turned 19), and his ongoing growth spurt (expected to reach 7’0 in the next couple of years, currently 6’10).  In the meantime, however, Khris Middleton and John Henson have stood out in the young season in the absence of Larry Sanders.  However unlikely, Bucks fans should dare to dream about a starting line-up of Brandon Knight, GA, Middleton, Henson, and Sanders.  Forgetting the dire lack of offensive firepower in that combination, the amalgamated lankiness would become story of legends. While the team does not have much cap space for another few years, a top-3 draft pick of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, or Marcus Smart in the upcoming 2014 draft will give the Bucks the best chance since the Ray Allen days to become a top-4 team in the East.

What I like: the last few draft choices. While fit can be argued, their potential to develop into roster players for a future playoff team is definite.

What I don’t like: the imbalance of the roster. Luke Ridnour and Nate Wolters (yikes!), not Brandon Knight, are the best playmakers on the roster. There is very little backcourt depth, apart from O.J. Mayo.  Did I mention Nate Wolters regularly plays over 15 minutes a game? Even if Wiggins and Parker are the top two talents, Marcus Smart would be a better fit as the roster stands.

Minnesota Timberwolves: As I said over the summer, signing Nikola Pekovic was the NBA version of crossing the Rubicon.  Signing him with the biggest financial commitment after Kevin Love would compromise free agent signings – and interior defense – for years. Primarily due to Pekovic’s weak shot-blocking ability and coach Rick Adelman’s aversion to playing rookies, the Wolves have been one of the worst teams in terms of allowing points in the paint (dead worst in away games). Two of the team’s most severe issues – bench scoring and paint defense – could be assuaged if Adelman played Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. While overly simplistic, one of the team’s main issues, as suggested in an excellent piece by Steve McPherson last week, seems to be Rick Adelman’s rotation choices. Chase Budinger’s return will surely help the bench, but that simply won’t be enough to save the least effective bench in the league. The roster is set for next few years. The way the roster is used needs to change if there is any hope of becoming more than a 7 seed in the next couple of seasons.

What I like: Kevin Love has been transcendent, getting more defensive help (Luc Mbah a Moute) in the Derrick Williams trade.

What I don’t like: the least effective bench in the league (lowest shooting percentage, fewest free throw attempts, 28th in bench ppg). Low post defense, the paltry use of necessary shot blocker Gorgui Dieng.

New Orleans Pelicans: New Orleans went for broke this summer, depriving the league of one of the greatest potential shot-blocking duos by trading its 2014 first-round pick and Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday, then brought on Tyreke Evans in a sign-and-trade to be a Ginobiliesque super sub. Results of these attempts to accelerate the building process have been mixed: scoring has not been a problem, but defensive efficiency has. Part of this is likely attributed to the replacement of Robin Lopez with Jason Smith at center. Anthony Davis is really good already, but needs Pelicans brass to continue to build around him. Finding a willing trade partner for the overpaid Eric Gordon would be a good start. It’ll also be interesting if Pelicans re-sign Al-Farouq Aminu at SF or go in a different direction. Time will tell if this core can evolve into a top 4 or 5 playoff team, but it would necessitate upgrades for the bench, small forward, and center. I’m not sure if Anderson and Evans – as the two main bench players – would be affordable in that situation, but if the Pelicans can re-sign Aminu and sign a center like Kosta Koufos next summer, they will be moving in the right direction.

What I like: Ryan Anderson has been an offensive juggernaut…Tyreke Evans as a bench player.

What I don’t like: Eric Gordon’s contract, Aminu’s failure to improve his offensive game. Austin Rivers.

New York Knicks: If James Dolan was a rational being, this would be the end of the experiment of building around Carmelo Anthony. The best case for a Melocentric team was realized last season; this, on the other hand, has been the worst. The proposed Blake Griffin-Carmelo Anthony trade that made its rounds on the Internet last week would be fascinating and probably beneficial for both teams.  Without a first-round pick next season and JR Smith signed for two more seasons after this one, the only way the Knicks can ruin their future any more is by trading away their 2015 first-round pick or re-signing Carmelo to a max deal after the season. Starting in 2015, the team will have a nearly clean slate (JR will still be clinging on); paying Carmelo approximately 40% of the salary cap as he progresses deeper into the wrong side of 30 would be asinine. I can’t see how even Dolan could rationalize such a move, but I can’t see the Knicks letting him walk either, simply because going for big names is how the Knicks operate.  In other matters, Iman Shumpert has marginally regressed as a scorer, while Andrea Bargnani is – and stats from last season support this – a slightly worse, more expensive version of Chris Copeland who the Knicks gave away a first-round pick to acquire.  Big names will trump sound strategy as long as Dolan has a say, which does not bode well for the team’s future – regardless of the next big name they manage to lasso.

What I like: Tim Hardaway, that’s pretty much it.

What I don’t like: the Bargnani trade, Chris Smith getting a roster spot, the essence of JR Smith.

Oklahoma City Thunder: It’s hard to argue against the way that Scott Brooks handles his young players, seeing the way that Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Maynor, and now Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have developed during his time as coach, but I find it difficult to understand why Derek Fisher continues to play when he is not even hitting 1 of every 4 3-pointers taken. Like Adelman, I think Brooks needs to get more creative with his line-ups, particularly in constructions that play Durant at the 4. Perry Jones III may still be an anomaly as to what he actually brings to the table, but he has shown improvement from last season in the limited time he gets. Playing Lamb or Jones III at small forward would be an extra opportunity for the second-year players to gain experience and play with the team’s two superstars.  Fisher will be of little use when playoffs come around, which Brooks should be mindful of as he gauges his roster in the new year.

Update: Westbrook’s third surgical procedure within a year sets off red flares to his future health, but based off his terrific play this season, he should have no problem hitting the ground running upon his return.  In the meanwhile, Brooks has seemed to recognize the opportunity and has allotted Westbrook’s 35-40 minutes among Jackson, Lamb, and Jones.  Increased game experience among his young players will reap future rewards.

What I like: the integration of Lamb and Adams into the rotation this season, the latter of whom will probably supplant Perkins as starting center once the former Celtic’s contract expires. Durant keeps getting better.

What I don’t like: Scott Brooks’s personnel decisions at times, which have been altered by necessity in the wake of the Westbrook injury, but will effectively cause Durant to lead the league in minutes until the All Star point guard returns.

Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo will be a pretty good player to go along with the myriad other pretty good players that grace Orlando’s roster. I think Tobias Harris has a chance to be the best out of all of them, but the team needs a star player in order to avoid peaking as a 5 or 6 seed. Even if Jameer Nelson is gone after the season, I think the Magic will look to draft Julius Randle or Noah Vonleh (both power forwards) if either of them declares.

What I like: the depth accrued by the team over the past few seasons.  A couple of seasons and a good draft pick away from challenging for a playoff spot in the wasteland East.

What I don’t like: Front-court heavy roster, likely to become even more so after the draft.

Philadelphia 76ers: Marked by two of the six or seven starter-level players drafted this year, this team’s potential could be the highest in the league with the help of a lucky draw next June. Michael Carter-Williams looks like the second coming of Jason Kidd, plus two inches in height and several in wingspan.  Evan Turner has put together an excellent season, yet it wouldn’t shock me if GM Sam Hinkie took advantage of his high value and traded him in this unprecedented tanking effort (Turner’s in for a pay raise, Hinkie may not be keen on being the employer for that). Same goes for Spencer Hawes.

Crazy trade idea: Philadelphia trades Hawes to New Orleans, Turner to Dallas. New Orleans trades Eric Gordon to Charlotte. Charlotte trades Gerald Henderson and Blazers’s 2014 top-12 protected pick to Philadelphia, Ramon Sessions to New Orleans. Dallas trades Shaun Marion and 2016 top-5 protected pick to Philadelphia, Shane Larkin to Charlotte.

Explanation: Hawes might make Ryan Anderson superfluous, but adds steel to center of Pelicans defense. Evan Turner becomes necessary young centerpiece for Mavericks.  Eric Gordon provides 3-point shooting, Shane Larkin provides cover for Kemba. Philadelphia gets cheaper at shooting guard, acquires two more draft picks to parlay (also gets worse, supplying nitrous in the race to the bottom).

What I like: The key pieces are already in place, other pieces may be yet to move. The drafting and tanking process has been on-point.

What I don’t like: The scope to which Hinkie has orchestrated the roster demolition. Unfair to fans and players alike.

Phoenix Suns: The new stomping grounds of the elder Plumlee, who has exceeded (my) expectations as the team’s starting center. Speaking of exceeding expectations, Dragic and Bledsoe have played together better than most people could have reasonably expected as two point guards. Channing Frye and Gerald Green have made grand returns to relevance as 3-point shooters. Alex Len and Emeka Okafor aren’t even in the picture, yet the team has entrenched itself in the playoff hunt.  I’m not sure how the team primarily expects to improve apart from the assumptive development of Len (not really off to a great start), but…

What I like:…$20 million in projected cap space certainly helps if it can bring in Trevor Ariza or *recoils* Rudy Gay (if he opts out). The Morris twins: can play both forward positions, shoot well, defend pretty well. Great pieces to have. Good balance of veterans and young players.

What I don’t like: Len’s absence. He’s the likely X-factor for the team’s improvement, the other being Archie Goodwin.

Portland Trail Blazers: Even bigger surprise team than the Suns. Aldridge has been fantastic, Lillard’s picked up where he left off. Getting Robin Lopez to replace J.J. Hickson has helped the defense. Gives up the most points in the paint, but the starting unit’s defensive rating is pretty good; when Mo Williams comes in for Damien Lillard, it’s excellent (per basketball-reference.com). As in the case with the Clippers, trouble starts when the 2012 5th overall pick Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland come into the game – particularly in the case of the former (per NBA.com). The interesting thing about the Blazers’ defense under Terry Stotts is that restricting 3-point attempts is priority: the team gives up the most 2-point attempts, but the fewest 3-point attempts (basketball-reference.com).  Conversely, on offense, shooting 3’s has premium value: the team averages the most attempts in the league.  While the bench is a bit better with the summer signing of Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum set to return within the next few weeks. It will hurt the Blazers that Robinson has been abhorrent; they will hope that Meyers Leonard can play a bigger role.  If not, lack of depth will be their undoing in the playoffs.

What I like: the first six members of the rotation

What I don’t like: what comes after. Check the stats, massive drop-off.

Sacramento Kings: The last thing that Sacramento needed, regardless of its scoring woes, was probably Rudy Gay.  I had thought Greivis Vasquez would have a bigger impact after a breakout year in New Orleans last season, but Isaiah Thomas, to his credit, played the best ball of his young career to make the  Venezuelan expendable.  Ben McLemore hasn’t been very good, but Mike Malone – a big improvement over Keith Smart – has given him plenty of playing time. The former Jayhawk needs to get to the line more often in the second half of the season.  If Derrick Williams can’t qualify for a part on this roster, he’s a lost cause.  He needs to see consistent playing time to build confidence and salvage his career. Can’t help but feel for DeMarcus Cousins at this point.  Hopefully 2014 will be their last year in the high lottery, but probably not. Defense is terrible…the team needs to find an answer at both forward positions. Rudy Gay is not the answer, neither is Jason Thompson.

What I like: Cousins and McLemore as building blocks, Williams and Thomas as key roster pieces, albeit probably not starters.

What I don’t like: Most other players on the roster. Marcus Thornton has had a rough year…if he’s not shooting well, there isn’t much else he can provide.  I would like him at $3 or $4 million, not over $8 million. If Rudy Gay opts out, the Kings should take the hint and move on.

San Antonio Spurs: One man goes down, another steps up. A common mantra in sports, but nowhere is it as much a testament as in San Antonio. Gary Neal leaves, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli step in.  System is often used to describe why the Spurs succeed regardless of who’s on the court, but that’s because nothing changes: same play calls, same expectations. The future is another matter, but for now, the window is still open: it’s simply a matter of how far this team can go.  Kawhi Leonard was arguably the best player in the 2013 NBA Finals and should produce more of the same in the 2014 playoffs. In order to return to – and win – the Finals, Ginobili will likely be the X-factor and need to perform more consistently en lieu of another Danny Green explosion.

What I like: players who have gotten it done and still can. The best coach in the NBA. Development of Kawhi Leonard.

What I don’t like: Blend is a bit heavy on veterans. You don’t want to bet against the Spurs, but it will be interesting to see where they are in two years.

Toronto Raptors: The team has improved since trading away Rudy Gay. As was the case in Memphis last season, once Gay left, the shots that he took were replaced by shots from more efficient players: last year it was Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, this year it has been Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross.  The team will probably win the Atlantic Division, barring a vast defensive improvement by the Nets (not impossible, but rather unlikely).  The reverberations of Masai Ujiri’s hiring as GM have already been felt, as he’s found takers for the albatross deals of Gay and Andrea Bargnani.

What I like: the track record of Masai Ujiri. The slow improvement to Demar Derozan’s overall game. Jonas Valanciunas. Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson as bench players.

What I don’t like: Landry Fields and Tyler Hansbrough, especially the former, as part of any team’s rotation. Bakersfield Jam would be a better fit.

Utah Jazz: When the team can only hope for its young players to improve this season, I don’t understand why Tyler Corbin has recently restricted Enes Kanter’s minutes (even though he has struggled) and has given rookie Rudy Gobert little playing time all season, while Richard Jefferson – who is all but gone next season – averages 27 minutes a game. I don’t expect Corbin to return as head coach next season.  Alec Burks will be a solid rotation player, probably not a starter…Derrick Favors has improved his efficiency around the rim, but has to continue progressing to validate his $49 million extension.  Gordon Hayward has struggled as the team’s primary offensive threat, his shooting percentages – particularly from 3-point range – have taken hits.  Getting Parker or Wiggins in the 2014 draft would take pressure off him. He probably will never be an All-Star, but he’s a player that has improved since his rookie season and should eventually average 18-7-6.

What I like: Trey Burke’s impact on the team.  The team – hapless at the point before he returned from injury – has looked significantly better with him at the point. Jeremy Evans has been one of the team’s best defenders and rebounders this season. A lot of cap space next year, even after Gordon Hayward is re-signed.

What I don’t like: Enes Kanter’s play, particularly on the defensive end, so far this year. Rebounding numbers have also been below what I expected. Thought he was more ready to succeed Jefferson at center. Lack of depth at point guard.

Washington Wizards: John Wall and Bradley Beal have been one of the league’s best backcourt tandems this season. Injuries notwithstanding, I like John Wall more than Derrick Rose because while he’s not quite the scorer Rose is, he is a bit more balanced as a passer/scorer than Rose and has more active hands on defense. Marcin Gortat was a good trade acquisition and I like Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza as wing players, particularly on defense.  Washington could win a round in the playoffs, but will likely not get further than that.  They need Otto Porter to become a part of the rotation in the new year, especially since Ariza will probably be gone via free agency next summer. Same might go for Gortat.  Whether he stays or leaves (but especially if he leaves), acquiring a rebounding big man will have to be high on the list in the 2014 draft, since there won’t be much spending money for free agency.

What I like: Bradley Beal’s shooting stroke, the starting unit, especially with Nene and Ariza at forward positions.

What I don’t like: The team could use an improvement over Trevor Booker in its rotation and there is some deadwood on the roster, namely Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple, and Chris Singleton.

KD’s 2013 NBA Season Reveries: Part 1

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?