5. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
Let me dig real deep: nothing that has happened in the Clippers’ past has any value in determining what their future will be like. Even though Shelley Sterling will serve as an in-house pariah to remind everyone of ugly times, that particular story has played its course.
It’s going to be very easy to forget. Chris Paul exists. Doc Rivers is the head coach. A zany billionaire bought the team and he is the right kind of zany billionaire. An adequate number of players joined and/or left the team, rounding out a variety of positions which could have gotten better. They drafted someone… probably…
What matters is Blake Griffin.
During the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers are going to be a vehicle for Blake Griffin’s ascent into super-duper-stardom. In his recent essay in The Player’s Tribune, he talks about last season and the change in ownership of the Clippers with a lot of hope, and in doing so sets an agenda for the coverage that will inevitably be about him. He is looking beyond last year and was begging everyone to do the same. Good news for him is that we’re one monster YouTube dunk moment away from dumping the baggage of Blake Griffin’s past and getting on board for the future.
A side effect of this ascent will be a possible 60-win team — one that is still orchestrated by Chris Paul, by the way. From a marketing perspective this is Blake’s team, but Doc Rivers and everyone who wears sneakers for a living in the Clippers organizations knows that on the court this is Chris Paul’s team. The establishment of Griffin allows the Point God to refine his role, choose his attacks more precisely and only when necessary. The dunks that made Griffin a household name have subsided only a bit, with the all-star power forward managing to enhance his ball handling skills, post game and jump shooting range incrementally over four seasons with tremendous success. With his shooting range extended beyond twenty-foot and no longer crowding DeAndre Jordan in the paint, Paul can attack the paint without as much risk.
Chris Paul has already been crafting Griffin into a superstar for two seasons, and now Blake is finally becoming an equal.
4. TORONTO RAPTORS
by Mitch Orsatti (@thirstyvillain):
The Toronto Raptors have the taste of blood in their mouths, and for the first time since Vince Carter’s fadeaway jumper against the 76ers, that blood belongs to another team. The opening round playoff loss to the Brooklyn Nets was an initiation, a christening for this Raptors squad – a ceremony that saw an untested team sink their teeth into veteran hide and come within a Paul Pierce fingertip away from advancing further into the Playoffs. When you get that close, you thirst to return, and this Toronto Raptors squad is parched.
With that thirst comes focus and drive, something that the Toronto Raptors as a franchise has been in short supply of in what will be the 20th year of its existence. As difficult as it is to use the preseason as a barometer (and it is, and you shouldn’t use it) the Raptors went 7-1. That record is meaningless – what is truly meaningful is the way that they went 7-1. The Raptors treated some of these games as if they were Game 7 all over again, with Dwane Casey even admitting that he got caught up in the amount of minutes he doled out to Lowry and DeRozan at times. Kyle Lowry picked up a handful of technicals, DeMar laid the groundwork for the whistle continuing to go his way and JV and Amir battled in the post, night in and night out…in the preseason!
These guys want what they couldn’t have last season, and Masai Ujiri brought back the entire gang to give them the opportunity to take it. The return of Lowry and his brand new $48 million dollar contract that kept him away from Houston, ensures that the Raptors will have another year of continuity to build upon. The Spurs prove it every year: continuity and chemistry wins championships, or at the very least, gets you deep into the playoffs. The Raptors are building on that model, as, outside of Amir Johnson whose contract expires at the end of this season, each main piece (DeRozan, Lowry, JV and Ross) has multiple years remaining in Toronto.
This will not be an easy road, however. The East vastly improved with the arrival of King James and Kevin Love in Cleveland, the return of Derrick Rose (fingers crossed), the Pistons finally figuring it out and the threat of Washington’s core development. Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta will continue to win basketball games and the wild-card of Indiana still looms large. Toronto will have to deal with those teams as well as the fragility of Amir Johnson’s ankles, the rawest of raw, Bruno Caboclo and finding adequate minutes for the trio of Lowry, Vasquez and the newly signed Louis Williams. Much like Josh Smith in Detroit, they will also need James Johnson to accept his role of: “we pretty much only need you on defense, so don’t shoot a lot, k?”, which Johnson famously struggled with in his last stint with Casey.
So, Toronto Raptor fans, forget about the Kevin Durant rumours. Forget about lint rollers, f-bombs and the Super Fan (all right, don’t forget about the Super Fan), because this season is all about the now, and right now, the Raptors are thirsty for more.
by Mark Milner (@thejockocracy):
Last year everything went right for the Raptors. When they traded Rudy Gay, the team looked like it was about to hit the tank. But surprisingly, things clicked and by season’s end, DeMar DeRozan was an all-star, Kyle Lowry was a household name in the GTA and the Raptors had their second-ever Atlantic Division title. (Maybe wait until the season opener to hang the next one, guys.)
The downside of a surprise like that is you can only do it once. In other words, the Raptors aren’t going to surprise anybody this season. The same roster is more or less back, which is great if you’re a Raptor fan: they’ve locked up Lowry for the near future and both DeRozan and Valanciunas are still on the books for a couple more seasons. It’ll be interesting to see if their power trio can repeat last season’s success or even take another step forward.
More interesting to me is where the rest of the team goes. For example, take Terrance Ross. Although he finished with a PER of 12.0, there were moments last year where he took over. One game he dropped 24 points on the Indiana Pacers and their NBA-leading defence, another when he scored 51 points against the LA Clippers. And remember, Ross is entering his third NBA season and turns 24 in February. There’s a lot of breakout potential here.
In a similar way is Amir Johnson. Since he signed with the Raptors in 2010, he’s been off-and-on, but generally pretty good: he can score a little (about 13 points per 36 minutes last season), grab rebounds and defend, although he has a tendency to get into foul trouble. More to the point, his deal is up at the end of the year. There’s a history of players playing well in contract years, which makes Johnson an interesting scenario: do the Raptors resign him as a role player or flip him around the deadline to a rebuilding team? I’m sure the question will come up thoughout the season.
This season, the Atlantic doesn’t seem like an especially tough division: the 76ers might set a record for NBA futility. And Toronto hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2001. It’d be nice if they finally break that streak this spring. And please, don’t raise any more banners before the season’s over.
3. DETROIT PISTONS
by Mitch Orsatti (@thirstyvillain):
Don’t call it a comeback 2.0 – Stan “The Man” Van Gundy gets a second run at a Dwight Howard-esque NBA center! After a three year hiatus where he was left for dead by the aforementioned Howard, Van Gundy returns to the Motor City with an eerily similar roster to his former Magic squads.
The crown jewel in this Detroit roster is Andre Drummond, who exploded in his sophomore year by averaging 13.5 points and 13.2 rebounds per game — almost doubling his averages from his rookie season of 7 and 7. Drummond also shot 62% from the field and an abysmal 42% from the line (and that’s rounding up). Thankfully for Van Gundy, the comparisons between Howard and Drummond stop there. While Drummond (who is oddly nicknamed “Big Penguin”) had some shine on Vine and Instagram with his now ex-girlfriend (and Vine star) Jenette McCurdy, the antics and bad attitude that plague Howard are non-existent. Previously dogged for his lack of motor, Drummond marched his way into the final roster for FIBA Championships this past summer and showed his tremendous work ethic while meshing perfectly with Coach K.
On the extreme opposite side of the Detroit Pistons roster is the beleaguered, underappreciated and oft criticized Josh Smith. The most interesting question of the Pistons’ upcoming season is going to be this: will Josh Smith accept the 6th man role? This question isn’t just about Smoove accepting it; this question is about: will Josh Smith pout and fire 3-pointers at will to spite Stan Van Gundy for sticking him on the bench when that is clearly his best use in the current make-up of this roster? Van Gundy has been forthright with the fact that the 3 Bigs combination did not work at all in Detroit last year. He has vowed to use it minimally and has praised the combination of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe in tandem. Those who are capable of reading between the lines know that that means Smith doesn’t have a place in the staring 5. The good news for Pistons fans is this: THAT’S A GOOD THING! Josh Smith is a beast of an NBA player, and he was asked to do to many things he is terrible at last year under the former Pistons reign (like be a small forward). With Smith coming off of the bench in what we could only assume to be his natural power forward position, he will be stationed closer to the basket where he can put in work on the block on smaller 4’s or blaze by bigger 4’s with his face-up game.
If Van Gundy can coax Smith into truly accepting and excelling in his bench role (a fair sized if), then this Pistons team is going to be extremely interesting (and fun) to watch this season. While Detroit doesn’t have the lights out shooting of J.J. Reddick, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson or Courtney Lee to surround Drummond like Van Gundy had with Howard in Orlando, they will find service in the newly signed Jodie Meeks, Caron Butler and holdovers Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler to play a similar role. A beefed up Brandon Jennings is going to play with a Gilbert Arenas sized chip on his shoulder after being dogged for Detroit’s collapse last season and the beautiful aroma of a winning coach is going to push these Pistons into playoffs.
2. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
Russ has got this.
In light of Kevin Durant’s injury, it’s safe to assume a lot of things: this will affect the Thunder greatly, the Western Conference got a smidge easier, and Sam Presti wishes that he did significantly more this off-season than sign Anthony Morrow.
But some things don’t change: basketball purists are going to be frothing at the mouth whenever Westbrook does anything, people will call for the firing of Scott Brooks, no sane basketball fan will be upset about a nationally-televised Thunder game, and even after losing the second greatest player currently on the planet, OKC are a league best basketball team with little risk of missing the playoffs in a phenomenally difficult Western Conference.
Kevin Durant will also eventually come back, and that should be fun NBA drama for a while, if you’re into that thing. Will Westbrook relinquish the reigns of the Thunder? Can Scott Brooks manage two alpha dogs? Etc., etc.
On the surface these are great questions for the future, but the Thunder are in crisis right now. Their NBA Finals appearance is now two whole seasons in the past and their empire, once thriving, is now crumbling. James Harden is gone and the salary cap keeps on making him more affordable season after season. Sam Presti has lost his super powers. After injury-free seasons, both Westbrook and Durant separately got hurt, forcing them to re-ignite the chemistry of their team on the fly for two consecutive seasons.
For now, the Thunder are going to have to rely on their nasty streak. The default speed of this Thunder team has been chaos ever since we have known them. More choas will reign throughout Oklahoma City and a rabid Russell Westbrook has never been more primed for the attack.
1. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
by Travis Nicholson (@flgrntfwl):
We’ve heard enough of this LeBron guy.
I mean… it’d be hard to say anything that hasn’t yet been said or written about what LeBron has done in coming back to Cleveland and try and win a championship in the place he grew up. It’s an unprecedented thing. No other athlete has purposely acted to impact their legacy and the narrative of their career in such a manner, nor make their quest for success in sports such an investment in their private identity. LeBron is already a living legend and the massive swing in attention towards this Cleveland team is going to be the best evidence of that. Like Kobe, LeBron is bigger than any single regular season game he plays in.
Then there are these two guys:
Without the undisputed greatest player of our time, this new fangled Cleveland Cavaliers team would be a young team built around quality superstars blossoming at the beginning of their primes. Last season, both Love and Irving were wasted in basketball backwaters: Kyrie a Cavalier during the W.O.L.B.J (Without LeBron James) years, Love playing with dozens of point guards in Minnesota before they settled on the worst shooter of forever. The NBA has been so great in the last few seasons because of teams living up to the hype — whether it is young teams taking a step up, players undeniably exceeding the expectations of their fans, or elite teams coming through on their championship promises.
Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are the next superstars to prove their worth, and they will do so on an unexpectedly huge stage alongside the greatest force in basketball.
Eight months of eagerly anticipated NBA basketball starts tomorrow — and I couldn’t be more damn excited.