…For a Horse? The Price of Love.

Bill Simmons came out with a few trade scenarios early in the week, not surprisingly involving Kevin Love.  He contended that if Mr. Love is not traded by this time next year, he will surely leave in free agency in summer 2015.  While I know far less than the the Grantland editor, it seems that – at this point in time – lack of attractive options the likes of Houston and Dallas (big market, adequate surrounding talent, etc.) from last summer will prevent his departure from being a guarantee.

The son of Stan isn’t a dummy. He hails from California, but that won’t incentivize him to play with studs like Shawne Williams, MarShon Brooks, and Ryan Kelly.  Odds are that this Lakers team will have an entirely different look next season, but unless it drafts a future superstar in June, different will not necessarily mean good, or even better, if Kobe breaks down again.

While it would be difficult to blame him, Love does not seem fed up by the incompetence of the past Wolves regime.  Flip Saunders has done a commendable job in the new David Kahn-free era, (re)building bridges and luring talent. While Adelman deserves some blame for rotation struggles, such as the narcotic-nightmare worthy pairing of Shved and Barea in the 4th quarter, he remains as one of the most highly-regarded coaches in the league (even though he will probably only remain on the sidelines for the next couple of seasons, at most).

As for the talent, it almost definitely ranks in the top 7 or 8 of the Western Conference.  Corey Brewer was a great signing…Chase Budinger is slowly returning to form…you have to take Kevin Martin’s passive defense with his off-ball movement and uncanny scoring ability…Rubio could be a top-12 point guard if he improves his finishing around the basket (far too much is perceived about his game by his stat line, shooting issues)…Pekovic is not a good fit beside Love, but Love really likes him and he is one of the league’s best offensive rebounders.

The team is set in stone to a great degree going forward, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While the team’s recent high draft picks and other young players (granted, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph may not be great examples) have fizzled out at an alarmingly high rate, that has no bearing on the progression of Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad.  I was part of the camp that clamored for Adelman to play the two rookies when the bench was tanking early in the season, but the injuries to Pekovic, Martin, and Ronny Turiaf have recently carved out some time for Dieng and Muhammad.

Aside: The fact that the two rookies have clear-cut positions at this level reduces uncertainty and allows them to focus on their particular roles.  They, along with whoever the team drafts this year, will likely provide the main source of upside for Minnesota for next season.  Even as memories of Kart Rambis’s main victims of his unforgiving and ill-fated triangle offense – Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson – remain fresh in the minds of Wolves Nation, it’s encouraging that each rookie – Shabazz with offensive rebounding and shot creating ability, Dieng with excellent interior defense and underrated offensive fundamentals – has definitive skills that he can build his game around.  Anyway…

In summary, there is a lot of talent on the team’s roster and Love knows that.  Although it seems likely that Love will be on the outside looking in for a 6th straight season, missing the playoffs this year is probably not a deal breaker for the former Bruin as the team moves closer to snaring a spot.  It will, however, make the postseason a requisite for next season.  Furthermore, a one-and-done result will also probably push Love toward non-frozen pastures.  As a result, the team needs to take a big a step next season as it took in the current campaign.  Meaning…

That unless Dieng can become the long-term answer as rim protector that the team desperately needs, Ricky’s shot starts falling more regularly, Barea bounces back (or the team finds an upgrade to back up Ricky), and Shabazz and Bud develop into a killer 1-2 scoring punch off the bench, Kevin Love is likely gone.

-which would be really bad for Minnesota.  In case that point needed to be driven home.  It would probably totally suck, as a matter of fact.

Other factors could come into play that lead to substantial team improvement, but when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to explore the worst-case scenario, namely that the Wolves continue their historically disappointing trend of underachievement next season and Kevin Love tells Flip Saunders that he might be Outty 5000 in the summer.

But that doesn’t make me a pessimist. I already said that I believe that the talent is there.  If I were a gambling man or lived near a casino or something, I would even make a modest-to-substantial wager that Minnesota will make the playoffs next season.

If it wasn’t clear before this season, Kevin Love is a top-7 player in the NBA.  If he was to get traded sometime next year, his trade value would at least match Carmelo Anthony’s right before he left Denver.  We’ll assume that the Knicks exhibited rational behavior and exchanged fair value when it traded its entire wealth of young players for the former Orangeman.  Before further ado, it’s time to answer a question posed by Arcade Fire: “When Love is gone, where does [he] go?”

Trade Idea 1: One of my main beefs with Simmons’s proposed Celtics deal for Kevin Love is that its worth is comprised almost exclusively in draft picks.  I think Flip would be sure to get at least one tested sure thing as a part in Kevin Love trade negotiations. Jared Sullinger would be a requirement if Love did go to Boston.  Throw in Avery Bradley with that 2014 6th overall pick,  Brooklyn’s 2014 and 2016 1st round picks via Boston, give them Barea, and that’s another story.

Even though switching Love for Sullinger would exacerbate an already poor defensive fit, trading Love would swing the priority to stockpiling young talent.  Bradley, a RFA after this season, will likely see his salary bumped to $6 or $7 million in the summer; throwing in Brandon Bass or Keith Bogans would make the numbers work.  If you’re a pessimist, you’re getting a throw-in for Love, a couple of picks, a shorter, better shooting Tony Allen, and a slightly undersized power forward for Love. If you’re an optimist, you’re getting a few long-term rotation options, a very good draft choice in possibly one of the best drafts in the past decade, and getting rid of J.J. time in the 4th quarter. Check please.

Aside: Another issue with Simmons’s prognosis is that while Love may value ‘Celtic Pride’ ad nauseum, he also values Rubio.  The prospect of playing with Rondo after playing with Ricky would not have nearly as much allure as it would for someone like Carmelo, who has Raymond Felton, who is totally not fat.

Trade Idea 2: We go from Shaq’s last destination to his first: Orlando, a team stocked with decent players and desperate for a star in the post-Dwight era.  The question whether Love would want to go there is irrelevant for our purposes; Rob Hennigan, just one of the Spurs’s legendary brood, would be more likely to balk at the prospect of giving up the metaphorical farm. Let’s overlook these details and ponder why it might work.

The team has a wealth of pretty good young players and two 1st round picks in this year’s draft.  To get Love, you have to figure that anyone but rookie Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic are on the table. That’s cool, you have players like Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, and Tobias Harris.  Wait…

Ok, so there isn’t much exciting about this team, and they need to strike gold in this draft in order to avoid becoming the future undead Bobcats of now.  So if the Wolves demanded Orlando’s pick or drafted player as part of a package for Love, it would merit serious consideration, even for GMs who live and die by the fruits of homegrown talent.

In this scenario, Minnesota would trade Love for Orlando’s 2014 4th overall pick, as well as its 2016 1st round pick (lottery-protected), the Lakers’ 2017 1st rounder, Tobias Harris (the combo forward who, besides Oladipo, probably has the highest ceiling of any player on Orlando’s current roster), and Jameer Nelson for cap reasons (Barea would subsequently get dealt).

Would Love like the move?  It would rely on how good Oladipo gets and who Orlando drafts (using the Nuggets’s increasingly valued 1st round pick, which could even roll into the top 10).

Aside: Holy hell, it’s gone downhill quickly in Denver. A mere 12 months ago, it was the most exciting team to watch in the NBA.  We all saw it coming once Ujiri left his GM post and took the same position in Toronto and George Karl got fired, but it doesn’t make the reality any less depressing. Ty Lawson’s wasting a great season, Javale McGee and Danilo Gallinari are out long term, every player on the roster has seemingly hit his respective ceiling. The only saving grace is the Knicks’s 1st round pick this year, which will likely end up around the 6 to 9 range.

But yeah, in the weaker Eastern Conference, a Magic team led by Love, Afflalo, Oladipo, and Vucevic would be a definite playoff team. It would be pretty good to watch as well. High scoring, already adequate depth in place (at the very least, Mo Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn look like long-term rotation players) and another 1st round lottery pick in the kitty.  This option would make more sense than going to the Lakers, who – like Minnesota – are mired in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. The Betty and Veronica of migration options, respectively.

Before I go on to the next idea, here are my thoughts on the other three Bill Simmons trade proposals involving Love:

1. Phoenix: After its two 1st round picks, the team’s best current trade chip is Alex Len. Not happening.

2. Chicago: Taj Gibson is still improving and I would take him over Boozer against almost any opponent, but, at age 28 and with at least $24 million owed to him over the next three seasons, he’s not the type of player that would help Minnesota in the long run. With that said, Nikola Mirotic is a rather intriguing piece and the Bulls have two mid-1st round picks this year.

While the draft pick value would not necessarily incentivize Flip to push the big red button in a vacuum, this is the only option among Los Angeles, New York, Houston, etc. that makes sense because, as a currently decent/good team, Love will already prefer Chicago as a landing spot. As a result, this could cause Flip to dig deeper and look for other takeaways beyond immediate building blocks: namely, future cap space. The unfortunate Dante Cunningham off-court developments ruined his chances of re-signing in the offseason and, thus, creates a need for Minnesota to acquire two power forwards in the wake of a Kevin Love trade.

As Trade Idea 2.5, I could see Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Alexey Shved going to Chicago for Charlotte’s 2014 1st round pick via Chicago, Chicago’s 2014 and 2016 1st round picks, the rights to Nikola Mirotic once he comes to the NBA, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer.

Gibson is a solid starting 4 who would project to fit well beside Pekovic, especially as his mid-range shot has improved. When healthy, Boozer would be Gibson’s back-up in his lone season with the Wolves. Mirotic (a bigger, faster Doug McDermott, albeit probably less complete as a scorer) could become an ideal stretch 4 in the team’s second unit alongside Dieng. Dunleavy would be a stop-gap starting shooting guard for Shabazz or (more likely) whoever the team has drafted.

The dual 1st round picks would give Minnesota hefty negotiating leverage in the draft, providing that it keeps its own top-13 protected selection following the lottery. Combining the picks would tempt the thin rosters of Detroit, Cleveland, or even/especially Los Angeles to trade their respective top-10 selection.

I wouldn’t hate the returns for Love & Co., but it would be my least favorite of the four detailed scenarios. Tom Thibodeau would probably share my dislike, as he would lose the hard-nosed Gibson and the deal would force him to engage Martin’s defensive lethargy on a regular basis. The athetic defensive forward Mbah a Moute, rather than Chase Budinger, would be the inclusion as a precautionary measure to preserve Thib’s sanity.

Aside: With Chicago’s uncanny recent reputation as a haven for back-up point guards, I see the Bulls as one of the very few places where Alexey Shved, who needs to be the ball handler in any offensive set, could salvage his career. J.J Barea could also fit in as the final throw-in piece. Either way, it’s addition by subtraction for the Wolves.

3. Los Angeles: I don’t think Kevin Love’s presence in Los Angeles would be nearly enough to pull Durant out of OKC even if he did sign with them as a UFA next year. Thinking more immediately, what do the Lakers trade besides its lottery pick in this year’s draft? Swaggy P? MarShon Brooks? Sadly, with L.A.’s current roster configuration, both of those players would have to be traded, along with Steve Nash’s contract, in order for a trade to work.

A couple of extra 1st round picks would sweeten the deal to the extent that a few pinches of sugar would sweeten a full grapefruit, but it still would not be nearly enough to get Love in a trade. Maybe 50 cents on the dollar. Not to mention that he would only have old Kobe around him for a full season. For a guy desperate to make the playoffs, I’m sure that prospect delights him.

Moving on

Trade Idea 3: This is the hinge, the point at which the weirdness sharply escalates.  We try to excavate what the 76ers GM Sam Hinkie regards as priority and filter it from the periphery, which solely consists of 2nd round pick acquisition schemes and falling Jenga towers.

In the most blatant of tanking efforts in NBA history, Hinkie has constructed a roster that has only been thwarted in Tankfest 2014 by the Milwaukee Bucks, which is giving an honest effort, God bless ’em.  While it’s probable that the 76ers plan to build from the ground up in the most extensive way imaginable, could it be that some of the pawns, knights, and rooks at Hinkie’s disposal are available to get a star to put alongside MCW and whoever they draft in the lottery this year?

Trading for Kevin Love would set up an absurdly abrupt about-face.  MCW looks like a lankier, more athletic Jason Kidd 2.0, even considering his drop in play over the past several weeks (understandable due to the rookie wall and lack of surrounding talent) and pairing them with whoever they draft (barring a lottery slip and if they declare for the draft, Parker or Wiggins will be almost definitely available), Nerlens Noel, and signing a couple of second/third tier free agents such as Shaun Livingston and Trevor Ariza would allow Philly to bounce back into the playoffs immediately.

So what would it take? Thaddeus Young, swapping Jason Richardson for Kevin Martin (two fewer years on deal, less money), Hollis Thompson for Luc Mbah a Moute, the 76ers’s 2015 and 2017 1st round picks (unprotected or top-5 protected), and the Pelicans’s 2014 1st round pick, owned by the 76ers from the Jrue Holiday deal.

Noel would be nice to get, but Hinkie would be keen to keep him beside Love. Besides, there wouldn’t be a big roster spot for Noel in Minnesota unless he played at the 4, which would be problematic for spacing purposes on offense. Personally, I think he’s Theo Ratliff with Tyson Chandler’s athleticism, which would be a greater service to Philly than Minnesota. The Pelicans’s pick would give Minnesota an opportunity to trade up to the 5th or 6th spot, assuming they keep their own 1st round pick (by finishing in the top 13 of the draft).

Would Love like it? Yes, since it would bring him into the Eastern Conference and all but guarantee immediate postseason arrival.  While Minnesota would arguably get less than it would receive in the Orlando scenario, this would enable Minnesota to make a few crafty moves to move away from the luxury tax line while having space to extend Rubio after next season. Not being in a position to win and paying the luxury tax is a double hell.

The two swaps are very modest, but nothing about Mbah a Moute fits in for the Wolves. He’s an overpaid luxury player at the moment and this would be the case to an even greater extent with Love’s departure, since it would create greater needs. Thompson is adequate, but advanced stats back him up as a good isolation defender and he rounded into a very good spot-up shooter as the season progressed (he came out of Georgetown with the reputation as one of the best shooters of his class). Shane Battier potential.

Aside: If this trade were to go down, by the transitive property, Minnesota’s 2nd overall pick will have amounted to Hollis Thompson. The ghost of David Kahn still lingers. So much vomit.

***********************************************************************

These would be the three four scenarios in which Kevin Love makes his way over to a winner, three of which Minnesota gets at least 80 cents on the dollar. Note that all four scenarios bring Kevin Love to the Eastern Conference. A storyline that will inevitably have massive reverberations and one that I hope ends sooner rather than later.

Thanks for reading!

SSB’s 2014 Super Bowl Recap and 2015 Super Bowl Preview

Not really much to say about one of the most disappointing Super Bowl of all-time.  One team was awful, the other was excellent.  Here’s a very short reflection *thinks back to game,  dry heaves, continues*

The popular expectation was that Peyton Manning would have success against Seattle’s Legion of Boom, and that it would be a close game with each team scoring in the 20s, low 30s.  I had predicted Denver to win 27-23 on the dual conditions that Marshawn Lynch averages around 3.0 yards a carry and that Denver wins the turnover battle.

Welp.

Trusting the elder Manning led most people cheering for Denver to ignore the facts that St. Louis’s Greatest Show on Turf was the only top-ranked offense to ever win the Super Bowl and that Denver had not played a top-ten defense all season.  There was no single factor to the Seahawks’ victory (you know, besides the fact that Peyton looked like he was Curtis Painter going against the Madden 25 team).

This was Rich Gannon vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2.0.

Super Bowl XLVIII revealed, if nothing else, the gulf in quality between the two conferences.  New England made it to the AFC Championship without its two most important defensive players and its four top receivers from the previous season.  As complete as the Chiefs and Bengals seemed to be during the regular season, Kansas City fell apart in Indianapolis and the existence of Andy Dalton was too much for Cincinnati to overcome against the Chargers.

The NFC, on the other hand, arguably had four or five teams that would have provided Manning with a greater test than he had endured all season.  Unless the Texans strike gold with a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco gets a top receiver, the Steelers’ offensive line finally stays healthy, etc., don’t expect the conference inequality to regress next year.

Moving on…

Looking ahead to Super Bowl XLIX, I believe that the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in Glendale, Arizona.

Wait a minute…

What about Denver? Seattle? Carolina? Cincinnati? San Francisco? Arizona?

My rationale for this prediction has a lot to do with timing. Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all have large pay raises on the horizon due to the overhauled rookie wage scale, which will compromise roster decisions that were possible when the star signal callers were making several hundred thousand to a few million dollars, rather than $12-16 million.

In the case of Seattle, highly paid players like Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, or Cliff Avril (Sidney Rice too, if that somehow matters to anybody) may be cap casualties in the upcoming offseason.  Michael Bennett will also be a free agent, meaning that Seattle’s currently vaunted pass rush will have a much different look next year.  Unless the team makes another killing on one-year and two-year deals, further big contracts will be very unlikely, since Wilson and the league’s best corner back, Richard Sherman (who might use the Revis deal as a value reference), will both be making at least $12 million in their next deals, meaning less flexibility moving forward.

The fact that Seattle crushed Denver reduces their chances of winning next year, since it puts the target on their collective back, but I would say that they will accept the consequences that complement winning the Super Bowl. Gut feeling.

Following two seasons of more than 330 touches (career highs), Marshawn Lynch will be expected to show signs of wear-and-tear next year. He will only be 28, but he is coming off the only two seasons in which he played all 16 games.  He also eats Skittles excessively.

Wilson’s role in the offense will increase regardless after two seasons of very similar production.  The heightened passing emphasis will be a challenge for both him and his offensive line, which has struggled mightily at times this season (which, of course, isn’t to say he won’t produce).  Unlike this current year, I don’t like Seattle as a title contender for next season, simply due to too much change on both sides: in personnel on defense and in philosophy on offense.  They will make the playoffs, but not as a No. 1 seed.

For Carolina, who I take – along with Seattle and Arizona – as Atlanta’s primary obstacles in the NFC, Newton will almost definitely receive a contract extension this summer (you have to figure at least $15 million a year, around a $10 million raise), which will be quite interesting due to star defensive end Greg Hardy’s pending free agency (he’ll likely demand at least four years at $12 million per season, even with a hometown discount, which he said he would give). If Carolina re-signs Hardy, finding cap space for most of the other free agents like starting corner back Captain Munnerlyn, four (!) of the team’s starting offensive linemen, and the team’s two starting safeties (Mikel and Mitchell) will be impossible.  Like Seattle, the team will have significant volatility along the offensive line, as well as in the secondary.  If Carolina allows Hardy to walk, the team will have a massive void to fill.

In San Francisco, I think Gore will finally succumb to wear-and-tear as he hits the wrong side of 30, but if Marcus Lattimore can return to 100%, the running game will not suffer at all.  Kaepernick, who – like Newton – is also due to become a free agent in 2015, will likely get anywhere from $12-16 million per year in his next deal in one of the next two offseasons. While the 49ers currently have a tight cap, it shouldn’t be a big issue.

Bigger problems will be finding replacements for Justin Smith (enjoyed another great season, but at 34, how much longer will he keep it up?), Carlos Rogers (32), Tarell Brown (if he leaves in free agency), and Anquan Boldin. Boldin’s return seems unlikely due to his resolute contract demands, but he’s been an essential crutch for Kaepernick, especially when Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis were out with injuries.  A pass rush reliant on Aldon Smith and on Ahmad Brooks to repeat a career-best season seems like an equally dangerous proposition.

Simply, in the cases of Cincinnati, Denver, and Arizona, my issue is at the quarterback position.  While I typically hate to speak in finalities, as stacked as the Bengals are at almost every position, I don’t think Andy Dalton is capable of going on an extended run of great form against top-tier opponents.  In other words, his record in big games speaks volumes, and he needs to change the script next season.  Despite Marvin Lewis’s firm backing, he is the Bengals’ primary limiting factor and the team needs to take advantage of the extensive talent on its roster sooner rather than later.

In Denver, I don’t see how Manning will be able to hold up another full season. This year was the year to win for him.  As historic as his current campaign had been, he struggled to recover from minor injuries all season, which does not bode well when he’s a year older.  On the defensive side, the team’s ability to put pressure on the opposing quarterback – with 32-year old Shaun Phillips set for free agency – will be dependent on Von Miller’s ability to make a full recovery from a torn ACL.  It’s a tall task, particularly as Champ Bailey becomes less and less of a presence in the secondary.

Arizona needs Carson Palmer to stay healthy in order to compete for a championship.  2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper’s return should provide a boost to a unit that conceded a lot of shots at the former Trojan.  While I consider him good enough to take a team to the Super Bowl, the combination of his past injury issues and propensity to force passes goes against him in this scenario.  With that said, if the team can acquire an upgrade for Rashard Mendenhall (not difficult, perhaps LeGarrette Blount, Jamie Starks, or Jonathan Dwyer), find another pass rusher in the draft or free agency (Robert Ayers or Jason Worilds), and hope John Abraham (still) has gas in the tank, they will be a good bet to dethrone Seattle and San Francisco from atop NFC West hierarchy.

Houston has a few elite pieces and the coaching hire of Bill O’Brien will probably be a smart decision, but electing to take QB Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles with the 1st overall pick is a huge risk, albeit mitigated by O’Brien’s pedigree of developing quarterbacks.  Jadeveon Clowney’s work ethic and character have undergone severe scrutiny and, combined with a subpar statistical junior season, will probably prevent him from being the 1st overall pick.  Even with a rookie quarterback (or Case Keenum, if O’Brien flips the bird at past history and improbably rolls the dice with him), I think the defense and surrounding playmakers are good enough to have Houston challenge Indianapolis for the AFC South.  Finding a long-term complement to J.J. Watt is a necessity, but will likely have to wait next season, as will contending for a title in the best case scenario.

So Why Atlanta?

Atlanta, unlike the a few of the NFC teams listed above, got the big quarterback extension out of the way last summer, already made tough cuts (like long-time RT Tyson Clabo), and will only marginally be affected by free agency (center Joe Hawley is adequate; one or both DTs Peria Jerry and Corey Peters will probably return).  It endured the brunt of the rebuilding process on offensive line and defense this season, aided by its early descent from the playoff race, and found a couple of potential future starting linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.  The two rookie corner backs, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford – also improved immensely as the season progressed.  As long as Osi Umenyiora can provide another solid season of 6-8 sacks, the team’s defense is one great pass-rusher away from becoming its best unit in the Matt Ryan era.

Drafting Anthony Barr with the sixth overall pick seems like a perfect match: the former tight end played in a hybrid defensive role with UCLA, has two seasons of excellent performance, and – as a team captain – fits the leadership mold that the Falcons brass covets.  With that said, I would not be shocked if GM Thomas Dimitroff pushes his chips to the center of the table and, like he did with Julio Jones, trade up for Clowney if he likes him enough.  Atlanta is probably the most likely team to trade up to the 2nd overall pick if St. Louis looks to trade out.

As in the case of Tom Brady, while his stats took a hit, Matt Ryan proved that he is an elite quarterback in this season more than in any other.  Behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines (LTs Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews or Auburn’s Greg Robinson are also options in draft), and without Julio Jones and a healthy Roddy White for much of the season, Ryan still ran one of the league’s best passing offenses while throwing to Tony Gonzalez (ok, well, he was still really good), Harry Douglas (chronic underachiever until now), and Drew Davis (yikes).  The addition of Steven Jackson turned out to be one of the league’s biggest disappointments.

Sam Baker – off an injury-plagued horror show of a season at left tackle – is a good blindside protector when healthy. The team will almost definitely address the need for offensive line cover in one of the middle rounds, but new signing Jon Asamoah is closer to the Harvey Dahl end of the spectrum than Garrett Reynolds. While very unlikely, the reunion of Gabe Carimi and Peter Konz – who composed part of a superb offensive line at Wisconsin – could inspire the two underachievers to avert total bust status and become, at the very least, quality back-ups.

With a year of experience under the belts of the rookie linebackers, defensive ends, and corner backs, the return to health of Sean Weatherspoon, the dual signings of Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, and the selection of Khalil Mack, the team’s pass rush will improve a great deal in the next season.  I expect the sack total to increase by at least a half dozen. The offensive line will also improve from experience, stability, and the return of Sam Baker.  With Julio Jones back and Roddy White healthy, this team will finally be good enough to represent the NFC in the 2015 Super Bowl.

…And Why New England

If there is a team that will seize control of the weaker conference next year, it will be New England.  Andrew Luck does not yet have enough around him.  Kansas City and Cincinnati will be in the mix again, but I don’t have enough regard for either team’s signal caller to predict their emergence from the AFC.  As for New England, I really liked its improvements to its front seven, especially when combined with the return of Jerod Mayo next season.  Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones look like draft gems; the secondary – as has been the case for the past several years – needs to improve. Darrelle Revis provides a massive push in that direction.

The priority on offense is finding another target for Tom Brady in the all-too-likely case that Rob Gronkowski succumbs to injuries again.  Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman (who may go to greener, higher-paying pastures next season) are great from the line of scrimmage to 12-15 yards down the field, but Brady needs a deep threat besides Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.  The need may not be imminent if they improve with time and experience.  The more pressing issue was that he had no capable replacement for seams routes once Gronkowski was ruled out for the season (there was Aaron Hernandez, but…).

For the first time in six seasons, New England ranked in the top-ten sacks total (per ESPN).  With a balanced running game, the team is only an upgrade in the secondary and at tight end/receiver away from Brady’s 6th trip to the Super Bowl.  Health is always a big issue and Brady will be 37, but the team has (finally) fully reloaded on defense, and the lack of an imminent threat makes their chances at representing the AFC rather favorable heading into next season.

Insane? Probably. But from now until draft night, this will be the prediction.

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?

Why Failure? The End of the Line for Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman

It was four and a half years ago, when purgatory dwellers New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers commemorated the start of a new page in their respective franchise histories.  Rex Ryan and Raheem Morris were appointed to their head coach positions earlier in the offseason and, as often is the case, they selected their quarterback of the future in the first round. Former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum moved up to the 5th spot to draft Sanchez, while the newly promoted Mark Dominik took Josh Freeman at 17.

After two seasons, Josh Freeman looked like he could end up as the best QB selected in that 2009 draft.   After wrestling the starting position from Daunte Culpepper’s tiny hands as a rookie, Matthew Stafford exhibited warning signs of a glass shoulder, only playing in a total of 13 of 32 possible games.

Sanchez improved significantly in his second year after a deplorable rookie season and his future looked bright. Even though the Jets made the playoffs almost entirely off the strength of their stout passing defense and great offensive line/run game, Sanchez played well enough to win the game for New York in the team’s successive trips to the AFC Championship Game.

Freeman, on the other hand, was arguably the best part of the Buccaneers team in the 2010-2011 season.  In his first full season as the reins, he threw for 25 TDs against only 6 interceptions and finished with the 6th highest Passer Rating and the 7th best QBR in the league (courtesy of ESPN).  Just as impressively was the 22-year old’s precocious ability to get the best out of a middling supporting group, highlighted by rookie receiver Mike Williams, Cleveland Browns castoff TE Vin Diesel Kellen Winslow, and something called an Arrelious Benn.

As a Falcons fan, I believed that the Buccaneers only had an upward trajectory and would challenge alongside Atlanta and New Orleans for years to come.  Freeman looked like the real deal, current Patriots backup RB LeGarrette Blount was rushing for 5 yards a carry, and the team had stockpiled its defensive line with young talent.

Despite having pretty much the same players around him the next year, however,  the former Kansas State Wildcat did not have the same success.  While Tampa Bay started the season with a 4-2 record, including an ugly/gritty victories over reigning NFC South division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans, the team plummeted after week 6 and lost ten straight games to end the season, effectively causing Raheem Morris to lose his job.

While Freeman did not play particularly well during the team’s free fall, he certainly did not play a key role in the season’s demise.  He only threw three more interceptions than touchdowns over the ten game span and passed for at least 250 yards in four of the games.  The run game took a massive step backwards, from 8th to 30th (!), and the Tampa Bay defense was the worst in the entire league.  Freeman was almost always playing with a deficit which, as in the case with the Oakland Raiders last season, undermined the run threat and pressured him to force more throws.

Tampa Bay’s front office ultimately hurt Freeman’s development by hiring Greg Schiano, a guy who had no history with developing quarterbacks and has basically pissed off the entire roster within two years on the job, and replacing Freeman’s main middle-of-the-field target, Winslow, with Vincent Jackson.  Dallas Clark helped mitigate Winslow’s departure, but did not provide consistency at the position.

Predictably, Freeman’s passing yardage increased significantly with a top-end deep threat, but his accuracy dipped by eight percentage points, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.  Based on numbers accrued by ESPN, Freeman was successful in completing 62% of completed throws to Winslow in his final season with Tampa Bay.  When throwing to Jackson, by comparison, he only connected with the wide out 49% of the time.

Perhaps the most surprisingly fact is that Freeman’s success in connecting with Wallace actually fell by 3% last season, even though Jackson was sharing the defensive attention that Wallace had received for two seasons before the former Charger’s arrival (via ESPN).

Despite Freeman’s slip in accuracy, he threw for a career high in TDs (27) and threw five fewer interceptions than the previous season.  Once again, while the offense was merely middle-of-the-pack, the defense bore a greater share of the burden for falling below .500.  While the young defensive line players and linebackers showed tremendous improvement in run defense (went from surrendering 5.0 yards per carry in 2011-12 to 3.5 in 2012-13, via PFR.com), passing defense was, yet again, one of the worst in the league.

This season’s failures in Tampa has rested on Freeman’s shoulders and, frankly, his implosion has been spectacular.  Part of the blame goes on the team’s failure to, once again, give Freeman a middle-of-the-field target (I don’t even know who their TE is), leaving him only with a check down option in RB Doug Martin and two deep options in Williams and Jackson.  Kevin Ogletree is awful.

With that said, there is no binary for success and Freeman’s decline this season has been a testament to that.  It is impossible to gauge the extent to which Schiano, the offensive coordinator that he hired, Mike Sullivan, and new quarterbacks coach, John McNulty (the Cardinals’ QB coach from last season!), have impacted Freeman’s play, but there is (absolutely) nothing to suggest that (at least) the latter two were intelligible hires by the organization.

I believed that Tampa Bay would contend for the NFC South title this season, but that clearly will not happen now that Freeman has been benched and rookie Mike Glennon will step in and likely provide his best Kellen Clemens impersonation.  I have said all I ever want to say about Mark Sanchez and his/the Jets’ collective failures here, here, and here, but Freeman was different.

It was really in the first few weeks of last season when it became apparent that Mark Sanchez was not going to improve into the quarterback that Jets nation envisioned him to be when he won against Peyton in Indy and Brady in Foxboro in that second season, with the final crescendo on Thanksgiving night of last year.

Even though Freeman never even made it to the playoffs, he should have had a different fate than Sanchez in NY, rather than having to start looking for a new home.  When a player shows the amount of talent that Freeman did at such an early stage in his career, you assume that he will only improve as the team builds him.  The case of Josh Freeman shows that production today does not guarantee production tomorrow, and that no amount of promise is immune to an unholy combination of change and individual circumstance.

Nikola Pekovic: The Rubicon of the Minnesota Timberwolves

So far, so good in free agency for the Timberwolves.  Minnesota signs Chase Budinger – who only played for a quarter of last season – for three years and attain Kevin Martin’s services for four.  If they stay healthy, the acquistions should deliver Los Lobos de Timber from last in the league in three-point shooting (officially) and in off-ball movement (unofficially).

On the adverse side of things, namely the other side of the court, defense has taken a step back.  While Malcolm Lee was by no means a mainstay in Minnesota’s rotation, he was one of the team’s better perimeter defenders (along with French mercenary Mickael Gelabale, who is also gone from the team).  Martin will consume their minutes, as well as take time from Barea and Ridnour, who both played exorbitantly at the off-guard spot throughout the season.

If you have watched Kevin Martin play throughout his career or experienced his subpar defensive awareness via NBA 2k, you know that Martin is a code yellow to many a team’s man-to-man defensive scheme.  He appeared to step up his defensive intensity last season on the contending Oklahoma City Thunder, but that was likely an aberration due to the outstanding team defense, which essentially elevated his own defensive standards.

On Minnesota, however, where there is no Ibaka to guard the paint, nor Durant or Westbrook to aggressively hedge screens or clamp down on switches, Martin will likely regress to his statistical norm.

This is a bad thing, yet with two of the best perimeter defenders/least efficient wing scorers from last year’s squad out of the picture, the net improvement on offense through free agency and the drafting of Shabazz Muhammad should heavily mitigate, if not offset, the defensive loss.

Minnesota was middle of the pack in defense last season and, if anything, struggled more to score consistently.  Since Kevin Love and Budinger were out for nearly the entire season and Rubio only started looking near 100% from February onward, this makes sense.  Assuming that the three players are at full health, with the addition of Martin, the team’s PPG should be at least 99-100, good enough for top-12 in a normal season.  Key phrase” at least.”  Scoring will not be a problem if the team stays (relatively) healthy.

Middle of the pack defense and top-12 scoring.  Sounds like a playoff team, right? No reason why not.  Unless, however, you recall that Andrei Kirilenko has also left the team.  While his advanced stats portray an average defender, they do not serve AK-47 justice, as he dealt with incredible instability within the starting lineup, a subpar defender in Derrick Williams (who started alongside him for much of the season), and injuries that cost him 18 games.

While I applaude the front office’s decision to let Kirilenko find another team (Kahn probably would have locked him up with a 3 year, $25 million deal), it leaves the team without its three best perimeter defenders and defensive leader going into next season.  Assuming that the team does not sign another guard/forward and resigns restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota’s starting lineup will probably be Rubio, Martin, Budinger/Muhammad, Love, Pekovic.

Whoops, emergency.  The proposed lineup has one average/borderline above average defender in Rubio, two if Budinger starts over Muhammad.  The rest of the lineup, however, is capable of getting lit up on almost any given night.

For this reason, I believe that the Wolves have to bite the bullet and either decline to match other teams’ offers for the Montenegrin center or move him in a sign-and-trade.

This will not happen.  I understand that.  The Wolves’ front office saw how Pekovic, when healthy, was one of the only sources of consistent scoring for the Wolves amid all of the casualties throughout the season and, as a result, will overlook his inability to challenge shots or rebound at a good, let alone great, rate on the defensive end.

With that said, wanting the Wolves to match the highest offer for Pekovic (which, based on the going rate, will likely be around 4 years, $46 million) is indirectly settling for long-term NBA mediocracy.  Signing Pekovic to such a deal will clog up any significant cap space in the foreseeable future, even if Minnesota declines to exercise Williams’ $6.7 million team option for next season. This is not even considering the inevitable Rubio extension (which will probably bump the Spaniard’s salary to at least $9 million per season).

Such an extension disables the team from seismic activity in the offseason outside of trades and freezes the roster with its same core for at least the next three years.  This core is talented enough to make the playoffs, maybe even to win a playoff series, but not to contend. Goodness, no.

Contending teams do not have starting big men who are both mediocre defenders.  Unless a team has exceptional talent or team defense (like the Miami Heat), inferior defense by a team’s big men gets victimized in the postseason as pace slows.  Three of the final four teams in the past postseason had exceptional defensive anchors at center: Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, and Tim Duncan.  Chris Bosh, while not in the same tier as the other three big men on the defensive end, has been vital to the team’s success as center.

With Pekovic, Minnesota resigns itself to the upper tiers of NBA purgatory: trapped in middling draft positions, capable of winning a postseason series by the might of the team’s current offensive weaponry, but doomed to ultimately fall short of conference championship territory due of the team’s enormous defensive frailties.

George Karl’s Denver Nuggets and the Nash-led Phoenix Suns evinced the limits of potent offense if the defense cannot consistently keep a team below 100 points.  Even if the currently constructed team reaches its offensive potential, lack of a defensive leader will be the source of Minnesota’s inability to ever permeate the second-round threshold.

As much as I desperately want to see the Timberwolves return to the playoffs, I do not want the climax of the team’s return to glory to be a second-round exit at the hands of Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, or Memphis.  If this is the case, Kevin Love will almost certainly leave the Target Center three seasons from now.

Whether by sign-and-trade (to OKC for Kendrick Perkins, Perry Jones III, and a 2015 first-round pick, for instance) or (more likely) declining to resign Pekovic and starting rookie Gorgui Dieng alongside Love, Minnesota would undoubtedly be taking a massive risk in losing a very talented inside scorer and offensive rebounder; perhaps as importantly, it would further alienate its franchise player, but it is a necessary step if the Timberwolves realistically aspire to emerge as contenders in the Western Conference.

Yes, Dieng may not be the answer and the team will likely take a step back in terms of inside scoring (although Love’s return would lower Pekovic’s usage anyway).  But scoring is not what this reincarnated Wolves team needs its center to do. It needs the center to protect the rim and lead the defense first and foremost.  Pekovic cannot fill that role, and if Flip Saunders and the rest of Minnesota’s front office fail to realize this fact, the long rebuilding road will have a disappointing final destination.