20. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
Don’t look at the Bucks roster. Just don’t do it. It’s easy to get excited about this Bucks season, just don’t look at that roster.
The Bucks were at a serious low last season, and when you combine a bunch of intangible things like new ownership, a new coach (Jason Kidd) and a bunch of young players that could (although probably not) be making a leap towards long term respectability in the NBA, watching the Bucks squeak out a 30-win season against the crappiest teams in the East would always be something to watch when you’re jumping around league pass watching various games end.
Outside of Bucks basketball, the more interesting news is that the clock is ticking on building an arena in Milwaukee and this franchise might be transitory in the near future. (Helloooo, Seattle!) Maybe this team is actually more interesting in the next two to four years, but there are fun players likely to end up in playing in odd positions against beatable Eastern conference teams. Of all the rookies this season, Jabari Parker seems like the most ready, as well as the NBA’s biggest wildcard sophomore in the ultra-lengthy Giannis Antetokounmpo. For a franchise finally starting to make the right moves, and one that now has to wear their legacy of past glory every night, we might be in for a culture change in Milwaukee. Or just a change far away from Milawaukee in the Pacific Northwest.
19. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
By all measures, the leap that Damian Lillard made from his rookie season to his sophomore season was both remarkable and unexpected. After his dagger three put the cap in the Rockets’ season to send the Blazers onto the second round, their exit in a five game annihilation by the Spurs was the most forgettable series of the playoffs. The legacy of their 2014 playoffs campaign is not only Lillard frozen in time hitting an uncontested three at home in Portland, but also LeMarcus Aldridge’s back to back 40+ point games, besting an also-monster series from the Rox’ Dwight Howard.
Coming into this season people are expecting much more from the Blazers based on their success last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they slipped and had to fight harder for a playoff spot this year. With one of the most cohesive starting fives all returning, a lot is depending on the success of their bench. Thomas Robinson’s is the perfect back-up to Aldridge (especially if Robinson shoots his jumper more efficiently), but I am not sold on Chris Kaman and Steve Blake as the answer. If Meyers Leonard and any of their young guards (CJ McCollum, Darius Morris) can steal minutes from Kaman/Blake, then this Blazers team can be the best of the non-elite teams in the West. (That’s a compliment, albeit close to a backhanded one.)
Stuck just under the elite tier of teams in the NBA and with an owner in Paul Allen that is willing to spend to win, plus an expanding salary cap, the consistency of Blazers’ roster could be disrupted for the first time in a while. Aldridge and Lillard aren’t going anywhere, but with Batum, Matthews and Lopez all due to get what the market will pay them, I sense a shake up in Portland if the Blazers perform worse than expected. If not, the fluidity of the Blazers offense and the insanity of Rip City is always great basketball.
18. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
by Mark Milner (@thejockocracy):
I can picture the magazine cover now, years after I held it in my hands. “Now this is going to be fun!” read the banner headline with a picture of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. It couldn’t have turned out any less fun, though.
About two months ago, Kobe Bryant turned 36. In a career that’s lasted 18 seasons, he’s played over 45,500 minutes, more than everyone but Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. While he’s younger than either of them, he’s also coming off a serious injury that limited him to six games last season. Indeed, ripping an Achilles tendon is enough to end careers, but Kobe’s still trucking, playing major minutes in the preseason. Why is this happening?
It’s not hard to figure out why: it’s Kobe’s otherworldly drive to succeed, to be the best player in the league and to dominate. Earlier this year, when Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard profiled Kobe, the takeaway scene was Kobe, fixated on winning a one-on-one game against some anonymous fan in China, playing his ass off. And for what, a sense of pride? To prove he’s still got it?
It’s not like he’s limping to the finish line. Until he got hurt at the tail end of the 2012-13 season, he put up pretty good numbers, averaging about 25 points and five assists per 36 minutes, 10.9 Win Shares and a PER of 23.0. Until April 12, he led a good Lakers team that was sixth in the league in points, fifth in pace and finished with 45 wins. But after he got hurt, the Lakers were swept in the first round.
In 2013, Kobe Bryant played alongside Nash, Howard and Pau Gasol. This year, he’s got Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill to carry the load. It’s not a fearsome squad, especially in the loaded west. But there’s some interesting bench players. Last year, Nick Young averaged 22.8 points per 36 minutes. Newcomer Ed Davis has shown flashes of potential with both the Raptors and Grizzles, and Julius Randle is an interesting rookie who averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds at Kentucky.
But let’s be real: what makes this team interesting is their aging superstar. And if Kobe is back to form – a big if, but he’s looked good in the preseason – this Lakers team could surprise a lot of people. They probably won’t crack the postseason (although FiveThirtyEight has them finishing last in the West!), but with Kobe back to full health, it might be fun to watch them try.
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
Kobe Bryant 19th season will be a season separate from the other NBA season. Each game of the 82 games, including 29 nationally televised games, will be a plotpoint in Kobe’s season before other teams can intervene with things like wins and losses, playoff spots, etc. Can Kobe take down former teammate Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose’s Bulls on Christmas day? How much will he be chucking at MSG, nationally-televised on Sunday morning in February? How close does he get to becoming the all-time scoring champion? There will be graphs and number and comparisons to the greatest players of all time until he retires, and then he will be compared to LeBron and Durant and whoever comes next for another few decades. Kobe will have apologists for another 50 years.
Henry Abbott stirred the pot of Kobe’s rampant fanbase with his latest piece and the evidence is juicy. There are some great highlights, even if they’re probably exaggerated, but this strongly hints that something is seriously wrong in Laker land. The takeaway scene from Abbott’s piece is a montage of the ways Kobe’s enormous influence is ripping apart the fabric of the storied franchise.
Kobe’s highest-profile defender is Phil Jackson, so there is reason to say reality lies somewhere between Abbott’s piece and the Kobe truthers is what actually happened. Whether or not Bryant repels potential free agents is unknown, but the Lakers have lost their cool very, very quickly. It’s hard to criticize some of the decisions they made to assemble the roster they had and the basketball gods have punished them harshly: Kobe hurt, Dwight bailed, Kobe hurt, and Nash forced into retirement.
Unlike other teams, who aim for Championships, or playoff spots, or the best draft pick, success for the Lakers this season is to support the Kobe Bryant empire. Byron Scott’s blueprint for success is a secret blueprint for failure; a case of secret tanking. I still cannot fathom that the Lakers franchise has slid off the rails this hard — either Lakers management think Byron Scott is a good coach or no one else would take the job. This is a recipe for drama and a nuclear Kobe Bryant.
Kobe Bryant is, of course, only one member of the Los Angeles Lakers, who are thoroughly interesting from top to bottom: from the incompotent son of the legendary owner’s ghost, to the confusing position of Jeannie Buss, to Byron Scott and his terrible ideas about how to play terrible basketball, to psycho Canadian Robert Sacre and a man who calls himself
Swaggy P Daddy Swag.
Update: The news that came out on Thursday about Steve Nash was a bummer. There was some stuff written here about Nash having a chance at being healthy and a successful victory lap in LA. For a player with such a storied NBA career that is no way to say goodbye to the league; the news that he will miss the entire 2014-15 season, and that it will very likely be the end of his career, is bad news. This news double sucks because of how much Steve Nash did to single-handedly support basketball in this country through his achievements on the court and his direct involvement with the national program. My best to Steve, and ultimate respect, and of course there will be more thoughts on this icon of Canadian basketball on Flagrant Fowl in the future.
17. NEW YORK KNICKS
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
Phil Jackson is now in deep with the New York Knicks franchise.
Luring him out from the pacific coast and away from his ranch in Montana has been difficult. The Knicks have done their best to flaunt him in public/let him be the public face of the franchise, everything short of having him don a Knicks cape. (Although I am sure that James Dolan had an MSG intern ask him, just to be sure.) The message is to let it be known that Phil Jackson did this under his own volition and even though he isn’t a head coach, still make this factor in to some genuine next step in his legendary career. He’s won titles at every level of his NBA career, and for someone who is purposly reluctant to put himself in that bright NBA spotlight again, he is taking an ambitious swing.
If Phil Jackson seems to think Carmelo Anthony is a good fit for the triangle offense, I’m not going to object. (His assertion that Andrea Bargnani will “thrive” in it is harder to stomach.) It’s the 14 other players on the roster that need to change. Ray Felton left town for Dallas and was replaced by the ultra-efficient Jose Calderon and Iman Shumpert set (at least in his mind) to take on a bigger role. Amar’e Stoudemire and JR Smith are fun X-factors that will each have some very memorable nights and more very forgettables ones.
And of course, there will be the inevitable moment that Carmelo Anthony creates at MSG this season, whether it’s a huge Sunday game winner or 50+ point explosion, it’s a moment that can only happen at MSG and by a star like Melo.
by Mitch Orsatti (@thirstyvillain):
Is everyone ready for “The Phil Jackson Aberration Year”? As a coach, Jackson managed a .704 winning percentage and won a staggering 11 championships. You have to go back a full 40 years to when Jackson was a player to find the last time he was involved with a losing franchise, and that franchise just so happens to be: The Knicks! This 40th anniversary WILL be marked with another losing season, as these Knicks are going to challenge NBA records in futility on the defensive end.
Outside of Samuel Dalembert, and an allegedly good team defender (alleged by New York Knick homer, Travis Nicholson) in JR Smith, this roster is going to be abysmal on the defensive end. Iman Shumpert, the next best thing to a defender on this team has slipped since his knee injury, Jose “The Matador” Calderon could very well be the worst defensive point guard in the league, and any time Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire share the front court it’s going to be an uncontested layup line with Bargnani swatting at air and Stoudemire looking skyward. All of this and we haven’t even mentioned the likes of the offensive minded Carmelo Anthony, the lane gambling (to a fault) Pablo Prigioni and a rookie head coach in Derek Fisher. Anthony has improved on the defensive end, but in a new offensive system where he is going to have to expend even more energy, it is doubtful that is zest for defense is going to improve.
If there is a linchpin, it is rookie coach Derek Fisher, who was a prideful defender in his heyday. Being as prideful as he is, he will also not want to disappoint his mentor and President of Basketball Operations, Phil Jackson. It will be interesting to see what wins out in this 2014-2015 New York Knicks season: pride or defensive shortcomings.
16. DALLAS MAVERICKS
by Mitch Orsatti (@thirstyvillain):
This is turning into a comeback season for franchises throughout the NBA, and beyond LeBron’s comeback to Cleveland, Tyson Chandler’s return to Dallas is an effort to rekindle some championship wizardry for Marc Cuban’s revamped Mavericks. The interesting question will be: will it work? The Mavs backcourt is small: Monta Ellis (6’3″), Devin Harris (6’3″), Jameer Nelson (6’0″), Raymond Felton (6’1″), and only Nelson is a reliable three-point shooter. Much like The New York Knicks, this back court will also struggle mightily on the defensive end.
Dirk Nowitzki is an ageless wonder, and it’s unclear whether a healthy Dirk is the difference between a 53 and a 35 win team. As the Mavs transition away from having to be so reliant on Dirk’s offence, they bring in a burgeoning small forward in Chandler Parsons, who could explode in production like James Harden did when he went from third-banana with the Thunder to top-dog the Rockets. Add in Monta Ellis, who seems to have had a Rick Carlisle-inspired offensive epiphany and a (relatively, because we’re never sure with him) happy Tyson Chandler, hopefully free of his Knicks-stink, and it seems these Mavs are going to be much higher than an 8 seed.
The final gem to this odd-ball roster is the brilliant Rick Carlisle, who, again managed to turn Monta Ellis into an effective and efficient team scorer. Though he may have stepped all over himself when he challenged Chandler Parsons about his weight gain in the offseason/preseason, Carlisle is a top 3 coach in this league who will maximize the talent he has in front of him. He and the Mavs will miss Shawn Marion and Vince Carter’s two way play, but the addition of Parsons and a seemingly vastly improved Jae Crowder should fill those holes more than admirably.